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Tearfund postpones ethical fashion guide amid pandemic, instead encourages Kiwi brands to 'build back better'

Tearfund is urging New Zealand and Australian clothing companies to maintain ethical standards throughout the dire times with the coronavirus pandemic, scrapping its annual ethical guide for now and instead encouraging brands to make responsible commitments.

Women's garments in a shop (file picture). Source: istock.com

Amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, Tearfund chief executive Ian McInnes told 1 NEWS he was concerned about the crisis slowing or reversing years of progress in improving the wages, rights and conditions of workers making clothes throughout the world.

As a way to hold companies to account, each year Tearfund grades about 400 brands from A-F on the systems and strategies they have in place to protect workers and the environment from exploitation. Grades are compiled into the "ethical fashion guide" for Kiwis to get in a small booklet or view online.

This year, amid the "very different operating environment", Mr McInnes said they're postponing the guide and instead Tearfund NZ and BWAA are asking brands to commit to protecting workers in their supply chains, as well as asking the public encourage brands to make and deliver on promises to their workers.

In doing so, brands have been asked make six commitments: 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.

In October, Tearfund NZ and BWAA will release a special edition of the annual ethical fashion report, which Mr McInnes said would be "much blunter" and would make the public aware of how well brands responded in "the Covid era".

"We want to see tangible steps and being public about it," he said.

"While we acknowledge that fashion companies have been hit by Covid-19 and their supply chains have faltered, it is garment workers in particular who will pay the steepest price."

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A report into the ethical production of clothes has given only two New Zealand companies an A rating. Source: Breakfast

Mr McInnes is urging businesses to honour their contracts after $3.2 billion worth of contracts had been cancelled, with about 2.2 million overseas workers - almost half New Zealand's population - out of work. 

Mr McInnes said in Bangladesh alone, where most workers are paid only poverty-level wages and more than one million workers have already been let go, many went without last month’s pay as well.

He also said there was concerns as the number of cases continue to rise in the nation - with 25,121 cases and 370 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University - workers had broken lockdown rules to go to work as they couldn't afford not to.

"We believe companies must do everything in their power to honour contracts and safeguard workers," Mr McInnes said.

"Consumers who benefit from the remarkable range of clothing lines in good times should let their favourite brands know they’re interested in how their workers are treated in challenging times as well."

Typically, brands like Icebreaker, AS Colour and Nature Baby continued to do well, with The Warehouse and Ruby & Co improving. But Mr McInnes said they'll be looking closely at especially bigger brands, like Farmers, which had been graded poorly last year, to see how they respond to the pandemic.

"We're looking at larger companies that can weather the storm."

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Tearfund’s annual report assessed nearly 30 Kiwi companies on their efforts to address worker exploitation. Source: 1 NEWS