For close to a decade, the Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Report has been driving improvement in the labour rights and environmental protection systems of Australian and international fashion companies.

The fashion industry is often synonymous with exploitation—both of people and the planet. When companies lack sufficient systems to protect their workers and ecosystems, injustices such as modern slavery, worker exploitation, and environmental degradation occur. But with over 60 million garment workers employed globally—the majority of whom are women in low-to-middle income countries—the fashion industry can also be a major driver for good. It can catalyse change through provision of jobs, growth, and export revenue. It has huge potential to bring people out of poverty and provide dignity to millions of workers.

Fast fashion brands are the world’s largest employers of garment workers—both directly, through company owned factories, and indirectly through engagement of third-party garment suppliers. As a result, they have the ability to influence lasting change for the greatest number of people.

Do We Go Too Easy On Fast Fashion Companies?

Each year when our Ethical Fashion Report results are released, several commentators flag concern that Baptist World Aid is letting purveyors of fast fashion off the hook too easily.

In 2022, we’re upping transparency on the real status of the industry by publishing the numeric scores brands received in our Ethical Fashion Survey.

These scores out of 100 demonstrate that even those brands ranking highly amongst their peers—including fast fashion brands who have historically scored A’s—still have a long way to go. In fact, with an industry average of 29.25 per cent, it’s clear that the entire industry has extensive progress to make. But even so, some fast fashion brands are still ranking highly in the top 20 per cent of companies assessed.

So, let us take you through exactly how fast fashion brands can rank well in the Ethical Fashion Guide.

First Things First—What’s The Issue With Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is frequently criticised for contributing to a culture that demands cheaper clothing, in more styles, on a regular basis. These clothes are rotated through stores at breakneck speed, with turnaround as condensed as weekly.

Consumers are purchasing four times the amount of clothing they were just two decades ago. With around 80 billion garments purchased annually around the globe, and one in four Aussies stating they’ve thrown away a garment after just one wear, this contributes to the eye-watering 800,000 tonnes of textiles rotting in landfill in Australia alone each year.

In many cases, fast fashion has been bad news for workers as well. The fixation on cheaper prices puts significant downward pressure on wages. The speed of changing trends puts enormous pressure on factories to deliver on short lead times and contributes to ongoing issues of excessive and forced overtime.

Knowing all of this, how can the Ethical Fashion Report rank brands like fast fashion pioneers H&M and Zara, and master of Aussie budget buys Kmart, in the top 20 per cent of companies assessed?

How We Come To A Score

All companies are assessed on 46 questions covering 18 different indicators of supply chain practice. These questions are grouped into five sections including:

  • Policies and Governance
  • Tracing and Risk
  • Supplier Relationships and Human Rights Monitoring
  • Worker Empowerment, and
  • Environmental Sustainability.  

It’s a comprehensive analysis of what companies are doing in a broad range of areas across their supply chain.

We assess companies on both publicly available information (things like Modern Slavery Statements and annual reports) and evidence disclosed to us directly. Each of the five sections are assessed and weighted separately, so whilst a company may score comparatively well in some sections, they may receive lower scores in others, or overall.

In total, our research team spend nine months on the assessment including multiple rounds of review and feedback before the scores are finalised. In 2022, that equated to 12,600 data points assessed.

What About Greenwashing?

Each question has strong validation and evidence requirements to meet. This means we don’t take vague statements at face value, but rather, dig deeper and work with companies wherever possible to ensure they’re practicing what they preach in their supply chains. Where possible, we request third party verification documents such as audits and certificates. For companies assessed on public information, the same level of evidence and validation applies. Further to this, our research team are assessing company statements, webpages, and documents on a daily basis for several months each year, which means they’ve developed expertise in identifying greenwashing red flags. You can view the requirements for each of our 46 questions (plus the credit awarded to each individual company) by downloading our Ethical Fashion Report Appendix.

How Are We Addressing The Issues Fast Fashion Perpetuates?

The fast fashion system has contributed to a range of environmental and social issues which we continually work to address within our survey through the introduction of new questions and stronger validations.

For example, 2021 saw the introduction of a new question focused specifically on overproduction. Companies are assessed on their efforts towards sustainable production planning and forecasting, and their strategy for addressing disposal of unsold goods.

Further to this, we’ve added suite of questions on circular business models addressing in-use and end-of-life impacts of clothing, specifically through a company-responsibility lens. These questions assess what companies are doing to not only assess the impact of clothing once sold, but to design clothing in more responsible, less-impactful ways, and engage with consumers to provide them with strategies for reducing impact like providing take-back schemes for used items.

Another area that we’ve assessed for several years now examines the responsible purchasing practices of companies. This question had its validation criteria significantly strengthened in 2021 to recognise the impact that things like lead times, pricing negotiations, and production planning have on the lived experience of garment workers. We also added a new question examining if companies are tracking data related to their payment of orders. The purpose of the Ethical Fashion Report is to continually push for improvement across the entire industry, and to do so, we raise the bar every year.

Different Survey Sections Are Weighted Differently

It’s important to note that each of the five survey sections are weighted differently. Currently, the Environmental Sustainability section which encompasses the overproduction and circularity questions accounts for 20 per cent of a company’s overall grade. The Supplier Relationships section which includes responsible purchasing practices accounts for 34 per cent. So whilst large companies may not score well on specific questions, if they’re covering a significant amount of the remainder of our survey sections they can still score well overall.

With All Of This Said—How Can Fast Fashion Companies Rank In The Top 20 Per Cent Of Companies?

Our research examines a very specific question: “How strong are the systems companies have to mitigate the risks of worker exploitation and environmental degradation?”

It may be true that the likes of H&M and Zara have contributed to a destructive cultural change, but that’s not what the report is seeking to address. The truth is, some of these fast fashion companies are doing better than most at mitigating worker exploitation in their supply chains. Their size and scale give them resources to invest in systems to prevent modern slavery—things like tracing their suppliers, effective monitoring, building relationships of influence with suppliers, and working with unions and governments. It also gives them resources to invest in innovative technologies and processes that can reduce environmental harm in specific indicators such as water pollution and emissions reduction. They’re far from perfect, but when compared to their peers, their systems rank amongst the best which is what this research focuses on.

So, Should I Buy From Fast Fashion Brands?

The Ethical Fashion Guide is not a shopping guide, but rather a tool for people to become informed and empowered to advocate. Ethical fashion is complex and multifaceted, and there is no single brand which scores a perfect 100 (or anything close) in our research.

When it comes to shopping decisions, if you try to find a brand which is ethically perfect in every way, you’ll be looking for a lifetime. Whilst we can’t always make perfect decisions, we can make decisions within our own means (geographically and financially) which are better than their alternative. This is where the Ethical Fashion Guide comes into play. It’s comparative nature enables you to make decisions informed by an understanding of how brands are ranking against others.

Our Six Spotlight Issues Help You Go Deeper

Beyond disclosure of scores this year, the Brand Finder also includes company performance on six Spotlight Issues which assess ethical sourcing outcomes.

While not necessarily more important than other questions, they represent key areas of concern for the general community—ranging from payment of living wages to use of sustainable fibres. These questions help people to think beyond the overall score and to evaluate what ‘ethical fashion’ really means to them. For example, is a company ranked in the top 20 per cent of those assessed considered ‘ethical’ if they’re not paying living wages or using sustainable fibres? This new addition increases transparency around the complex nature of the journey towards ethical sourcing.

We know that there are larger, systemic issues facing the fashion industry that will not be fully addressed by one report or guide alone. These can only be successfully approached through genuine collaboration between fashion companies, NGOs, civil society, governments, and of course, the demands of global citizens.

At the heart of the Ethical Fashion Report is a desire to see the industry changed. We want to see the 60 million garment workers around the world empowered to live their lives with dignity, in a healthy environment. The Ethical Fashion Report and Guide play just a small part in this puzzle.

This article was originally published on 7 May 2018 by Gershon Nimbalker and has been adapted for the 2022 Ethical Fashion Report and Guide launch.