Major Australian department store chain Myer is disputing its poor grading in an ethical fashion assessment which found the company is falling short when it comes to reducing its environmental impact and ensuring its supply chains are free of modern-day slavery.
Other major Australian names such as Bardot, RM Williams and Quicksilver also received failing grades in the same categories in this year’s Ethical Fashion Report by the Baptist World Aid Australia.
The report assessed the ethical practices of 98 Australian, New Zealand and international companies, representing 42o fashion brands.
It is the most comprehensive ethical fashion report for Australia and New Zealand, giving companies a letter grade based on their transparency and demonstrable practices around the treatment of workers and the environment, through extensive surveying, consultation and examination of publicly available materials.
While Myer received a D rating overall, it scored an F for worker empowerment and environmental sustainability.
According to the report, the company failed to demonstrate evidence that any of its final stage manufacturing facilities paid workers living wages, had programs to increase wages or “published a credible commitment to pay living wages,” complete with a timeline and key milestones.
In the previous report, Myer earned a D+ in both this and the environmental category. A spokesperson for the company objected to the new grades, stating Myer continued to require all suppliers to adhere to a “stringent ethical sourcing policy”.
“[The new grades] fail to accurately reflect our program and the continuous improvements made, with the result also being inconsistent with the results and benchmarking of previous years,” he said.
“Myer’s ethical sourcing program is well established and has been in place for over ten years and it continues to evolve and improve each year … We will meet with the Baptists to better understand their significant change in the evaluation of our sourcing program, especially in a year where further improvements were made to the program.”
While director of advocacy at Baptist World Aid Australia, Peter Keegan, did not wish to speak directly about Myer, he defended the report’s 2021 assessments, stating the ethical criteria continues to evolve as the fashion industry becomes more aware of its endemic problems.
“This year, for example, we introduced some new questions around modern slavery with the introduction of the [new Australian] modern slavery act. We [also] increased the weighting and the number of questions in the environmental section,” he said.
“We’ve got to be really clear that what we can award credit for, is what we can see evidence of … So if a company, perhaps has shared slightly less with us this year than they might have in the past, it means we’ve got less evidence to work with to assess and understand what’s happening in their supply chain.”
“We can’t base a grade just on where a company might have been a couple of years ago, we need to continue to see the evidence that they’re still at that place and continuing to move forward.”
Myer’s direct competitor, David Jones received a B grade overall, scoring a C in worker empowerment and a B in environmental sustainability.
While four companies scored A+ across the board – Etiko, Joyya, Mighty Good Basics and Outland Denim – many major players in the industry fell short.
Women’s clothing brand Bardot, as well as Boardriders, the company behind Billabong, Quiksilver and Roxy, scored overall F ratings, including in the areas of human rights monitoring, worker empowerment and environmental sustainability.
Australia Footwear and apparel brand, RM Williams, scraped by with an overall D grading but also failed to demonstrate evidence that any of its final stage manufacturing facilities paid a living wage to workers.
All three of these companies chose not to volunteer additional information to the report, meaning only publicly available information was assessed. This tended to yield lower grades than those who cooperate with Baptist World Aid.
RM William’s chief managing officer, Chris Willingham, said the report “paints a highly inaccurate picture” of the company.
“This year’s score is the result of the 2021 survey not being completed given significant changes at the company over the past 12 months. Now that the business has returned to Australian ownership, with a commitment to make more products in Australia, we are committed to operating in a wholly transparent fashion,” he said.
“The score we’ve been allocated this year is not a true reflection of who we are, and we look forward to putting the record straight next year.”
Other brands, such as athletic wear company Lorna Jane who scored a D, or SHEIKE, which received an F in every category, suggested that not participating contributed to their poor performances.
“Unfortunately, this year we did not have the internal resource to engage with Baptist World Aid to participate in the report,” said SHEIKE general manager, Sandra Kennedy.
“Whilst we are not striving to be known as a sustainable fashion brand we certainly are trying to do our part to minimise our impact on the planet.”
According to Keegan, the overall results this year were mixed.
The largest areas of improvement were in policy and governance, with plenty of As and A+s awarded. But when it came to actually enforcing these commitments – such as regularly auditing suppliers’ labour conditions – grades began to drop dramatically.
“We see companies that have taken the first steps but they’re yet to fully integrate that through everything aspect of how they operate … They’ve put in place some of the policies and codes of conduct, and we welcome the fact that that’s they are on that,” Keegan said.
“But the reality is, for that to have an impact for workers, it’s about ensuring that [the companies] have got contracts in place with their suppliers that are fair.”
“Some of the key things that make the biggest difference for garment workers are stuck at stubbornly low levels … Only 15% of companies can show us that they are paying living wages to any of the workers in the final stages of their production.”
Dr Rebecca Van Amber, a fashion sustainability expert at RMIT university warned that these kinds of reports would never be able to paint a full picture of conditions on the factory floor.
“Unless you are physically there and you are auditing the factory or have a trusted auditor, how can you know that your goods are not being made at a factory down the road for cheaper,” Van Amber said.
Keegan said, for this reason, companies were assessed on the efforts they were taking to find and correct instances of unfair labour.
“If a company that’s running a big global operation tell you there’s no slavery of any form in their supply chain, then I’d say they probably haven’t looked closely enough or taking the issue seriously enough,” Keegan said.
“The important thing for them is that they’re constantly looking, that they’re putting in place the measures that help to reduce those risks.”
The report also assessed companies’ environmental policies, including efforts such as emission reduction targets and the use of sustainable fibres.
Myer, RM Williams, Bardot, Lorna Jane, SHEIKE and Boardriders also received failing grades in this category.
“[A report like this] is certainly better than nothing and it definitely can help guide consumers to make some better choices,” Van Amber said.
“But do I think it’s the be-all and end-all? Not necessarily because as consumers, we’re not seeing all of the information that they’re seeing that’s going into this report, and your personal criteria [for what makes an ethical brand] might be quite different.”
Bardot and Boardriders have been contacted for comment.