Australian fashion brands are bearing the brunt of increasing unwanted attention for unethical supply chains.
No-one wants to talk about it. But if you’re working in procurement for the fashion industry, you’re in the hot seat.
Fuelled by consumers’ love affair for fast fashion, the fashion industry is finding ways to produce faster and cheaper apparel than ever before. The latest example of this is Kmart and Target producing school uniforms for $2 an item, in a marketing campaign that made recent headlines for all the wrong reasons, given that factory workers are paid below levels that can cover basic living expenses.
The broader industry is digging its own grave, and, in years to come, the fast fashion industry will cease to exist, warns an Australian fashion industry authority who has worked on both sides of the fence.
A Different Way to Do Fashion
Catherine van der Meulen (formally Taouk) worked her way up in her father’s teen, fast fashion brand SUPRÉ for 15 years, which specialises in mass-produced, cheap fashion. During those years, the potential issues of unethical supply chains never crossed her mind.
She’s since realised the error of her ways, designing the Raw to Store movement to educate businesses about the spectrum of impacts generated by the fashion industry globally.
“Since leaving SUPRÉ, I’ve realised that there’s another way to do business, and it’s not this ruthless, cut everyone down to make money style of business that’s operating in the fashion world today,” van der Meulen says.
“I wish I’d have known back then what I know now about ethical fashion and conscious capitalism in my days at SUPRÉ. I wish I knew that the impact of our decisions can have a negative impact on others without me even knowing it.”
But she’s making up for lost time. Late last year, van den Meulen landed the role as head of corporate sustainability at Clean Cut Fashion – Australia’s industry body for ethical and sustainable practice. The organisation connects Australia to the global sustainable fashion movement and encourages national retailers to be more mindful of their supply chain.
She has only been in the role a few months, and is starting by raising awareness and contacting the industry’s worst offenders in search of a commitment.
“I’m starting with exemplifying the ones that are doing well in creating positive impact in the industry. We want to empower the great work of the brands that are committed to change and use that to teach other brands,” she says.
Issues associated with unethical supply chains include building an entire brand on an unsustainable business model, bad publicity, consumers turning to social media to vent about brands doing the wrong thing and, of course, knowing that you’re paying workers less than they need to live on in their own countries.
Cath van den Meulen
“It’s my job to look at the supply chain of these fashion brands here in Australia and open up discussions around what’s being done to improve the processes. There’s plenty of room for improvement out there. But there’s generational corporate resistance to work through,” says van den Meulen.
She hopes to bring about change among Australian fashion brands that rely on mass sales by producing ‘loss leaders’ (extremely cheap items that are highly publicised), which are commonly mass-produced in unethical supply chains and manufacturing establishments in third world countries, she says.
To highlight the sheer size of the issue of unethical supply chains in Australia, she points to the Australian Fashion Report prepared by Baptist World Aid Australia, which last year named and shamed Australian fashion brands that haven’t cleaned up their supply chain or protected workers overseas.
The report was released two years after the fatal Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which saw the lives of 1,129 factory workers die. This event has put a black mark against the collective fashion industry, and van der Meulen says everyone needs to take responsibility.
The Baptist report named iconic Australian fashion brands as worst performers, such as the Just Group (owner of Just Jeans, Jay Jays, Dotti, Peter Alexander and Portmans), fast retail brands like Ally, Valley Girl, Temt and Industrie, and low cost suppliers like Lowes and Best & Less.
These companies each received D or F grades because there was little evidence they were doing much, if anything, to protect workers overseas. Many had little or no publicly available information and/or didn’t respond to requests to engage with the research process.
Oxfam Australia also released a report late last year naming the Australian brands dodging workers’ rights. The report named Best & Less as making the least progress of all the companies Oxfam has been engaging and assessing. The Just Group was also named in the report as another company sourcing from Bangladesh, which has so far refused to sign the Fire and Safety Accord.
“The truth is that you can create a profitable and sustainable business model while also doing the right thing as a corporate citizen. And yet there’s so much toxic fashion out there that consumers can purchase clothing for the price of a coffee is utterly obscene. Everyone needs to take responsibility for there to be change.”
Procurement – Authentic and Transparent
And while almost impossible to put a figure on the cost of cleaning up unethical supply chains, she recommends that procurement professionals approach this mammoth task in an authentic and transparent way.
Procurement professionals need to take responsibility for what’s happening further down the supply chain, starting with an independent audit to uncover and document the issues, she says.
“Where the cotton is from that you’re using, for example, can have one of the biggest impacts on the cotton industry globally. These are questions procurement people should be asking that demand answers.”
“I recommend that fashion brands start out by doing the B Corp assessment, which take just 90 minutes and gives you a rating out of 200 to see where you stand today,” she says.
Next, work out where you can make the most impact within your supply chain, and commit to starting an improvement program.
“Just focus on one thing that will improve your supply chain by 1 per cent this year. This could include improving energy consumption or waste water, changing suppliers, or sourcing more ethically produced products,” van der Meulen says.