Do consumers deserve to know the wage of the person who made the clothes they buy, or how much pollution was created in the manufacturing of their new smartphone?
It could be time ethical business guidelines are made into law in New Zealand, according to new international research by an Auckland student.
University of Auckland PhD student Miriam Seifert interviewed more than 50 clothing companies around the world for her research into the slow fashion movement.
She also approached fast fashion giants including Zara, H&M, Forever 21 and Abercrombie and Fitch, but they declined her requests for interviews.
A common theme amongst the slow fashionistas was a desire for stricter rules around supply chain transparency.
New Zealand is subject to a number of international environmental conventions that restrict trading in certain chemicals which could cause environmental harm.
The Resource Management Act governs the production of waste on our shores, and labour laws set the bar for worker’s rights and safety here.
Consumer laws protect New Zealanders from dangerous products and hold producers to account for label claims as well as regulating competition, fair trading, and consumer credit contracts.
There is nothing written in law that has an overarching responsibility for the supply chain ethics of products that come to New Zealand.
Newsroom approached the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, Ministry of Primary Industries, Minister for the Environment and Commerce Commission. None said they had any current plans to consider this.
Currently, consumers have to rely on the information companies give them. There are independent verification schemes, but they differ in criteria and often requires a business to pay for members, said Seifart.
“Regulation is certainly very low or lacking, so some companies want the Government to take action and set guidelines,” she said.
This was supported by Little Yellow Bird founder Samantha Jones. Her business makes uniforms from organic Indian cotton and by well paid workers.
“How amazing would it be if New Zealand said, ‘We are not going to import goods unless they can prove they are not being made by child labour’.
“Yes, it might cost more – but that cost would be the true cost. If you’re paying $7 for a t-shirt then you’re not actually paying the actual cost you’re using exploited labour so it’s obviously going to be cheaper.”
It wasn’t just about getting a fair deal for business owners, who by and large know the commercial realities of the industry, she said.
Consumers deserved to know where their products came from and how they were made.
“It’s really confusing for consumers and people wanting to support ethical businesses, we are always trying to meet certifications and things like that but it’s getting to the point where you have to decide if you want to spend the money on the certifications or paying the workers more.”
Seifart said transparency was one of the most significant trends that came from her research.
“Transparency was something that came out as a very important trait overall,” she said. “Many [of the businesses surveyed] developed after the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, they wanted to see change in the industry and do something good for the environment and society and make sure something like Rana Plaza doesn’t happen again.”
The Rana Plaza collapse killed 1129 Bangladeshi factory workers when a building engineered for cafes and shops was instead used as a manufacturing plant for fashion labels including Mango, Primark and Walmart.
It sparked international outrage and has been a large driver in the slow fashion movement. The annual Baptist World Aid Australia recently revealed how New Zealand fashion companies fare on its ethical ranking system.
Other organisations also publish guides, but Seifart questioned whether these were enough.
“Independent accreditation schemes have issues that is, which fall short of one set of uniform rules that could easily be mitigated by laws,” she said.
Green MP Barry Coates supported such a move, saying the party has “concerns over a range of ethical standards in supply chains”.
“A whole of supply chain approach is crucial to ensure that acceptable standards … are respected.
“We have a particular concern over the labelling of investment as ‘ethical’ or ‘responsible’ without adequate standards having been defined by the industry or stakeholders in a transparent process.
“This is a growing issue worldwide and New Zealand companies are having to catch up, as seen in the wake of revelations over default Kiwisaver providers investing in landmines and cluster munitions.”
“The existence of certification schemes, such as AsureQuality does not absolve retailers from their responsibility to provide correct information to their customers,” said Coates.
“They need to make sure that the systems they use are working. It is part of developing consumer trust in retailers. This must include a broader understanding of animal welfare standards.”
She said while New Zealand businesses such as Kow Tow and We-ar were industry leaders in sustainable fashion – as a country we tended to be behind the rest of the developed world, particularly Europe.