Tearfund calls on clothing companies to prioritise 'people and planet' amid pandemic

Covid-19 has brought about the worst crisis the global fashion industry has seen, with the pandemic disrupting entire supply chains and exposing workers to greater risks than ever before, according to Tearfund.

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Tearfund's Annie Newton-Jones and Kathmandu's Gary Shaw discussed the aid organisation's special edition of its annual report. Source: Breakfast

In April, 1 million workers had lost their jobs in Bangladesh, and by May over 30 per cent of Bangladeshi garment workers reported their children had gone without food.

This year's special edition of the annual Ethical Fashion Report, the Covid Tearfund Fashion Report, released today, ranked 93 companies covering more than 428 brands - including 39 from overseas, 50 in Australia and 11 in New Zealand - on their work to address the immediate risks facing workers in global fashion supply chains as a result of the pandemic.

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The non-profit aid organisation and its partner, Baptist World Aid, developed six "Covid fashion commitments" earlier this year aimed at keeping companies focused on protecting workers during the pandemic.

The six commitments include: to support workers’ wages by honouring supplier commitments; to identify and support the workers at greatest risk; to listen to the voices and experience of workers; to ensure workers’ rights and safety are respected; to collaborate with others to protect vulnerable workers; and to build back better for workers and the world.

Brands were ranked on a three-tier system showing how well they performed, rather than ranking companies from A to F like in past reports.

It found that 72 per cent of companies assessed this year could demonstrate that they had taken at least some deliberate positive actions to support vulnerable garment workers through the global pandemic, with 43 companies able to show evidence of action for all six commitments.

The report also showed that many companies have worked to improve gaps or weaknesses in existing ethical sourcing practices, with 22 per cent identifying strengthening worker voice systems as a top priority moving forward, and 16 per cent reporting piloting or implementing new systems amid the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the report also found that 56 per cent of those assessed were unable to show action across all six areas.

Tearfund's Annie Newton-Jones told TVNZ1's Breakfast it was about inspiring companies "to create supply chains that prioritise people and planet".

"It's making that connection, picking up the clothing and asking yourself, 'Were workers treated fairly? ... Was their environment prioritised?'" she said.

More than 80 per cent of the New Zealand companies assessed could provide evidence of upholding the fashion commitments, with more than half belonging to companies which have held high rankings in previous Tearfund reports, including AS Colour, Freeset, Hallensteins and Glassons, Icebreaker, Kathmandu and Macpac.

Kathmandu's Gary Shaw said the company's commitment to supporting workers amid the pandemic was about "really just following through on those commitments that we had already made ... to make decisions that don't just benefit the bottom line but are made with people and planet in mind".

The brands that failed to make commitments include Barker's Clothing, Farmers and Max Fashions, the report states.