Sydney, Australia

Ten years ago, 1,134 garment workers were killed and 2,500 injured when a building in Bangladesh collapsed. Most had been sewing clothes for some of the largest fashion brands known around the world.  

Two managers working then for Baptist World Aid Australia learned of the Rana Plaza tragedy and said they were challenged “as Christians to respond”. Though Baptist World Aid’s focus had been largely on development and disaster relief, Rev Scott Higgins and Gershon Nimbalker (now national director of Common Grace) began to imagine an advocacy effort of a different kind. What if they created a report card of sorts to monitor the fashion industry’s treatment of workers? They believed “everyday Christians” could respond to injustices through their wallets and choices, while simultaneously holding fashion industry leaders accountable.


BWAA Ethical Fashion Report cover 2023 

The cover of this year's Ethical Fashion Report.

The result is Baptist World Aid’s Ethical Fashion Report and accompanying Ethical Fashion Guide, an influential assessment of issues such as workplace conditions, living wages, environmental impact and supply chain fairness. As part of the organisation’s mission “to work toward ending poverty through 68 projects working with 27 local partners in 34 countries”, the fashion report has become a key part of its work. And this month, its advocacy team launched a special Ethical Fashion Report edition, published online, to commemorate what - if any - progress has been made in the ten years since the Rana Plaza tragedy. 

The report leverages 10 years of the organisation’s research data, analysing the progress of 25 companies assessed in 2013 and again in 2022 against a range of criteria focused on worker exploitation and modern slavery. It found that these companies outperform the full 2022 clothing cohort by an average of 11 points, highlighting the impact of consistent public scrutiny placed on companies since 2013. Kmart, Lacoste, David Jones and Lululemon are among the most improved, while Abercrombie & Fitch, Sussan Group and Myer the least improved. 

“Fashion companies can no longer hide behind their policies and public commitments,” said Sarah Knop, national engagement manager for advocacy at Baptist World Aid Australia. “There remains a huge gap between what companies have committed to on paper and what’s actually happening for workers.”

BWAA Ethical Fashion Report A Decade in Review

Click to enlarge

According to the organisation’s website, the most shocking discovery from the data has been what hasn’t changed: people who make clothes still live in dangerously impoverished conditions, despite working 12-hour days, six days per week. When workers raise concerns about safety or collective bargaining, they often face retribution. In other words, many companies still can’t provide evidence of worker empowerment initiatives like unionisation, collective bargaining agreements, or living wages in their supply chains. 

As one garment worker in Cambodia said: “They gave me little pay, but I had to take it because I needed to buy formula for my baby.” 

While tracing, transparency and final stage monitoring has improved, including a rise in companies that have publicly shared supplier results, many in sourcing countries still suffer. This is due in part to the reality that the agricultural industry experiences high risks of child labour and modern slavery. Modern slavery has increased, especially in countries which source materials for garment factories, making the influence of advocacy efforts all the more critical.

For example, when the 2013 Ethical Fashion Report called out the cotton industry, it exposed Uzbekistan’s state-enforced labour scheme in the cotton fields. But by 2022, the country was officially declared free of systemic child and forced labour.  

Even with such “wins, experts say the industry remains troubled, needing complex strategies to bring effective and just conditions.

“We call on fashion companies to collaborate widely with industry, government and civil society to create genuine systemic change over the next decade. Workers can't wait any longer,” Knop said. “While we celebrate some progress, we know that our work is far from done.”

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One step toward collaboration is robust dialogue, such as 'Is Fashion Safer for Garment Workers?', an event that will take place on Wednesday (26th April) in Sydney. Experts from ActionAid, Baptist World Aid, Oxfam, and USYD Fashion Revolution will gather to discuss workplace conditions and rights for women garment workers. 

Bonnie Graham, advocacy lead at Baptist World Aid who’s spent four years assessing over 600 brands on issues like forced labour and environmental degradation, said the public discussion is especially important for continual progress. 

“I worked in the fashion industry, an experience which motivated me to advocate for better conditions for garment workers and stronger environmental practices,” Graham said. “True systemic change can only be achieved when companies, governments, NGOs, and global citizens work together. Issues such as modern slavery and living wages are complex, and change cannot be achieved by individuals alone.”

Considering Australians have become some of the world’s largest spenders on clothing, advocates say public scrutiny must continue to influence change. Baptist World Aid’s Speak Out tool enables shoppers to send emails to brands, and its Manifesto for a Better Fashion System offers specific projections and guidelines for addressing issues of exploitation and environmental care. 

“I think the most important thing for Christians to know is that in the fight for justice for garment workers, their actions truly matter,” said Knop.  “All of us can do one thing today to make a difference, be it praying for change, making a more informed purchase, or writing to a fashion company to urge them to focus on improving workers’ rights.”