As consumers become increasingly more conscious in their purchasing decisions and look for more sustainable products, brands are working harder to meet these new expectations. But the latest 2019 Tearfund Ethical Survey shows New Zealand fashion brands are rising to the challenge and are improving the way they operate, with Nature Baby, AS Colour, Kowtow and Icebreaker among the best performers. We had a chat to them about what they’re doing right, and what other companies can learn from them.
The aforementioned brands – Nature Baby, AS Colour, Kowtow, and Icebreaker – all scored within the ‘A grade’ range, but some of these brands, such as Kowtow, are well known for an ethos centred around sustainability. On the other hand, many of New Zealand’s most popular retailers scored low due to non-participation in the survey. Most of these retailers have their own methods of carrying out policies to protect workers, supply chains and lower their environmental impact, for others; this conscious production is not a key issue.
The trade report is not a necessary requirement for them to fill out and its outcome affects only those who make an effort to shop consciously, but as that is growing, so is the survey’s influence.
However, the topic of throw-away fashion is complex and is changing all the time with new information and innovations. Readers of the survey need to be careful not to oversimplify the issue and reduce 'sustainable fashion' to a tick-box exercise or vilify brands as unethical because they chose to report methods themselves.
This year brings the sixth version of the survey, and the anniversary of the industry’s most tragic disaster; the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which claimed the lives of 1,134 garment workers. Since that time, this report has tracked the efforts of fashion companies to ensure that the rights of the workers and the working conditions are maintained to a humane and fair standard.
This is only the third year New Zealand has been involved within the report. Seven New Zealand companies were graded in the A range, up from five last year. Ten received a grade of D or lower. Icebreaker, Freeset, Kowtow, Liminal, Nature Baby, Kathmandu, and AS Colour were the top New Zealand performers.
Gosia Piatek, founder of ethical clothing brand Kowtow, agrees that the survey in itself is a lot of administration, but it creates an important conversation both out and inside the workplace around a sustainable mission practice.
“The A+ score was not easy to obtain, just because it is a very in-depth survey with a lot of questions. So, it requires us to go quiet deeply to answer the questions correctly which takes a lot of time. It is an adminstration thing having to do it. But what is great about it is that it sparks a lot of conversations in the workroom with where we’re at and how we’re going, which I suppose is the intention of it.”
Kowtow for the third year scored an A+ grade, one of the few in the report who came out on top. Yet Piatek says this grade is not a surprise, as working towards creating an ethical, sustainable brand has been the goal for 13 years.
“I went into this thinking it would be great to start a company that had a really high standard of ethics and sustainability. I thought, imagine if the company could respect its people from the moment the seed is grown to the end product… That is the epicentre of everything we do and every decision we make, so getting the grade that we did is inevitable for the company that we are.”
Piatek has a humble view of the high score, saying that “we’re not walking around the office high-fiving each other either, because it is still just the basics of what we do”. She says the ethical mission they’re on is not one dictated by surveys and reports, but more so one ingrained in their culture and work they do.
“It’s cool that we’ve got this grade, but there are 101 other sustainable ethical missions we need to get on with… We see ourselves as the pioneers, we set out from the first day on this mission and it’s not something we’d adapt or change as the survey has come out.”
She agrees that the survey itself can be time consuming, yet as the dubbed pioneers of the ethical industry, she says it is something they must put time aside for, even if others cannot.
“Everyone has different processes and reasons they may not want to do the report. As a small company it can be hard, you have to pay your employees to fill out this report, and it’s very intensive. It is kind of a catch 22. For us, we have to do this because we are the pioneers in this realm, we need to be engaged.”
“But I do think that for some of them they are still honouring New Zealand manufacturing, even though they’re not involved,” she continued. “Maybe they haven’t got information up on their website so they’ve been given a grade that I do feel is unfair to what they could have been given. I do think that can be a bit mean.”
Trelise Cooper for the third year has been given an F due to non-participation. The designer said in a statement that the F grade is misleading and deceptive, as labeling a company F for non-participation does not differentiate from the companies who receive F due to bad practices.
“By participating in this report,” Cooper says, “we would be endorsing the style of deceptive reporting, which is not based on first hand evidence gathering. Tearfund do not visit factories in India, China, or Auckland. Therefore, we have chosen not to participate.”
The Trelise Cooper team has its own code of conduct, partnering with Mindful Fashion New Zealand, and over the last 18 months has been implementing changes to make sure suppliers and factory owners adhere to those codes.
“We demand high standards, not just in our products but also in the ethical conduct of the people who produce them. We think that monitoring of business conduct is important, but we apply those same high standards to reporting practices.”
WORLD by Denise L'Estrange-Corbet stated they didn't think Tearfund's survey was applicable to, or understanding of New Zealand garment production, while Karen Walker and Kate Sylvester both said it wasn't suited to boutique brands like theirs.
Tui Taylor, global head of product development and operations for Icebreaker says companies must do their due diligence to see where this report has weight. When the report had surfaced, Icebreaker declined to participate, which saw them receive a F grade that was then broadcast across New Zealand media. Since then, the company has made the effort to participate, which Taylor says has improved how consumers see them and how Icebreaker sees itself.
“Three years ago, we declined to be part of the survey because we had other priorities, and the report didn’t seem to be one of them. But we noticed by actually participating and checking off those boxes, it changed how the consumer felt about us and how we felt about our brand and our purpose. We were marked poorly the first time around because we chose not to participate, but that made us stand up and acknowledge that that stance that we took was actually not right.”
Taylor acknowledged that it isn’t enough just to say you have ethical practices, and companies must make these practices transparent and readily accessible to the consumer.
“And if we’re going to go out there and tell people we are this environmentally focused brand and we want people to be on that journey with us, the only way we can do that is to participate. It was a little naive of us to think we didn’t have to.”
Icebreaker this year scored an A grade, one which isn’t overly surprising due to the ethical nature of the company, but it does show the difference towards how both the media and the public react to the report and subsequently Icebreaker, even though the policies remain the same as when they were scored low in 2017. Yet Icebreaker is showing that despite being a large, internationally owned New Zealand company, it can still meet the new demands of Kiwi consumers.
Taylor says getting this high grade wasn’t hard once they put in the effort as ethical practices are part of the company’s ethos, and despite the administration of completing the survey, she encourages other retailers to get involved.
“It is necessary in the environment and world that we live in now. We have people still not participating for some reasons, and it brings the questions of why they aren’t. Don’t they see what is happening around them? Don’t they understand that this is part and parcel of delivering back to the consumer and what the needs are of this day and age?”