Re/make’s 2022 Fashion Accountability Report finds a few promising trends, but said much more work needs to be done to bring sustainability and social justice to manufacturing hubs such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, among other places.
Garment workers have faced physical harm due to outdated building codes and other violations, and wage theft is still rampant. The pressure and economic pain is forced by downward prices to the bottom of the supply chain, where workers carry the brunt of the load.
Ayesha Barenblat, CEO and founder of Re/make, a global advocacy group fighting for fair pay and climate justice in the apparel industry, said the organization doesn’t accept money from the fashion industry, making it more objective, than other indexes that monitor garment workers’ plight.
“We’re very much an independent watch dog looking at the industry’s own social and environmental sustainability commitments, and seeing how they did year-over-year,” Barenblat told me. “How we measure everything from worker well-being to climate justice is consistent.”
For the 2022 report, Re/make reviewed 58 large companies, up from 46 last year, including Chanel, which scored 8 points, J.Crew, 10 and Allbirds, 3, on their journey to intersectional social and environmental sustainability.
The latest report also highlights 15 small sustainable brands such as Tracy Reese’s Hope for Flowers, Lemlem, Backbeat and Co., and Riot Swim. Re/make decided not to score small sustainable brands earning less than $100 million in annual revenue and self-described as sustainable or ethical, since the organization’s measurements are designed to hold large corporations accountable.
Re/make is moving away from the idea that there’s good and bad brands and retailers, but rather, it’s embracing the notion that the fashion industry is a complex place, and retailers, brands, suppliers and other stakeholders must navigate the choppy waters common with overseas manufacturing.
Retailers and brands can score a total of 150 points, and are rated on traceability; wages and well-being; commercial practices; raw materials; environmental justice, and governance.
“Rather than just calling out the concerns, we lifted up Victoria’s Secret
If 10 out of 150 sounds low, the the bar has been set very low. Victoria’s Secret cleaned its house and changed its image after me-too allegations came from the scantily-clad super models or angels that appeared in its annual televised runway show. The brand’s e-commerce site now says, “Have You Met The New VS?” and shows models with a diversity of ethnicities and sizes.
Re/make created spotlight issues, which gives it an opportunity to give kudos to retailers and brands’ sustainability efforts. It’s a technique used by school teachers and parents, called positive reinforcement.
“We decided not to rate [companies below $100 million in sales] with our traditional criteria, which was really set up to look at big box retailers, the luxury fashion industry, and brands that do a certain revenue volume,” Barenblat said. “Because of the way the process works, it wasn’t an apples to apples comparison.
“So, while we have highlighted disruptive, innovative smaller brands that are doing very interesting things, we haven’t weighted them in the same way as we have in years past,” Barenblat added.
Seventeen companies, or 29% of the cohort that Re/make reviewed, had a conversation with the organization. “This year, we saw was an uptick in companies that really wanted to engage in the process with us,” Barenblat said. “We had more engagement with Burberry, 38 points; Gap
However, Levi’s seems stubbornly indifferent to the year-long campaign for the International Accord on worker safety, which was spurred by the Bangladesh Rana Plaza tragedy where 1,321 factory workers were killed in a fire due to a lack of safety precautions nearly a decade ago.
“We have seen an uptick in other brands signing onto the Accord, which represents Bangladeshi workers and is likely headed to Pakistan,” Barenblat said. “Levi’s has a big footprint in Bangladesh and Pakistan.”
“We witnessed an incredible pull back to the status quo,” said the report. “We are back to cheap consumerism, high profits, low wages, massive greenwashing, token racial justice and the constant churn of new collections.”
Walmart remains one of the lowest-scoring brands evaluated this year, the report said, adding that the company has been implicated in major wage theft cases in India and Bangladesh during 2022.
According to the report, suppliers in Karnataka, India, producing for Walmart, are paying employees owed arrears due to nonpayment of the minimum wage, but the retailer has yet to make amends for the billions of dollars worth of orders it recently canceled globally in an attempt to straighten out inventory issues and keep prices low.
Walmart two weeks ago announced that the cost of preparing Thanksgiving dinner for family and friends will be no higher than it was last year – inflation be damned. The retailer said it made significant investments on top of its everyday low prices on food. There are jaw-dropping prices for apparel such as Eloquii Elements mixed print midi dress for $9.99.
Shein — the Amazon
The passage of the Garment Worker Protection Act (SB62) in California last year – a victory that was hard-fought and hard-won – helped inspire a wave of proposed policies in the U.S. and in Europe that aim to protect labor, human rights and the planet, the report said.
“We have highlighted Levi’s as a company that has refused to come to the table when it comes to the Accord,” Barenblat said. “We have brands that scored between 0 and 9. These are brands that absolutely refuse to engage in any of the human rights abuses and climate impacts that we bring to them.
“They score badly across the board,” Barenblat added. “Some of those brands include the big box retailers, Kohl’s and Walmart
Ultra fast fashion brands such as H&M in many ways have been on a greenwashing cleanse this year. When Re/make looked at them from a substance standpoint, it found them sorely lacking.
That includes Shein, 8; Missguided, 9; Boohoo 9, and also Savage by Fenty, 4, which in many ways was built up to be a brand that empowers women. “When you look at how Fenty treats workers in the supply chain, which are predominately women, it really falls short,” Barenblat said.
The ultra-fast fashion company Missguided, is apparently misguided, launching a drop of up to 1,000 new styles per week in the name of affordability, and barely recognizing its mainly female garment workforce.
Missguided’s recent financial troubles have led to hundreds of Pakistani garment workers reportedly not getting paid or being fired because suppliers are owed millions for already completed and shipped orders. On top of the wage theft, there is an utter lack of transparency from Missguided surrounding worker wages, factory conditions, coverage by collective bargaining agreements, and commercial practices, the report said.
“Sustainability marketing darling Allbirds is another brand that falls short,” Barenblat said. “And then there are folks that behaved very badly during the pandemic, cancelling orders, and not engaging with Re/make, that scored very badly.” That includes J.C. Penney, 2 points, TJX, 2, and Sears, 2.
“It’s an interesting cohort,” Barenblat said. “The big box retailers that have so much power are really dragging the industry down. There’s the ultra-fast fashion brands that had a sustainable collection, and then there’s traditional retail companies that never really said much about sustainability. It’s the fundamental business model that is broken. A lot of cheap product is being built on fossil fuel.”
Kohl’s and Levi’s pose an interesting question since they are in the throes of a change in leadership. Michelle Gass, CEO of Kohl’s, is stepping down to join Levi’s as president, with an eye towards moving into the CEO suite in 18 months when current CEO Chip Bergh retires.
“Kohl’s was one of the brands during the pandemic that didn’t engage, but I’m hopeful about the change in leadership,” Barenblat said. “Whether Michelle Gass wants to leave a very different mark when it comes to Levi’s remains to be seen.”
Despite glaring shortcomings in worker well-being, Levi’s earned points for developing a living wage benchmark in collaboration with nonprofit organizations, improving its animal welfare policy, introducing lower-cost financing to suppliers implementing low-carbon processes, sharing the extent of employee unionization, and disclosing additional information on initiatives addressing products at end-of-life.
“Twenty-twenty-two was a tale of two opposing truths in fashion: a glimmer of systemic change amidst a prevailing flood of harmful industry practices,” the report said.
Luxury brands the report investigated, such as LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, 11 points, and Chanel, “fell very short in terms of being transparent,” Barenblat said. “Similarly, some of the companies that market themselves as sustainable have really fallen short. But, there are other companies where in certain categories, we have seen movement, which is exciting and positive.”
Also exciting is the move by small brand, Ganni to adopt a buyer code of conduct, the first brand to ever do so, Barenblat said. Some companies are also learning from the pandemic, which is important because, “We know a lot of the industry is directly connected to the commercial practices of brands.
“We know that the climate crisis and the human rights abuses are all part and parcel of the way the economic risk is pushed down onto the supply chain,” Barenblat added. “Here, we have a brand that’s the first ever to commit to ethical practices and enshrine them in their contract. I look at that as a welcome trend.”
Barenblat said she had to disabuse herself of the idea that consumers have to demand sustainability and ethical labor practices as “the only way we’re going to address the ecological horror of climate impact and human rights abuses.”
Brands such as Shein, which scored 8 points, and Boohoo Group, owner of PrettyLittleThing and Nasty Gal, 9, are doing gangbuster sales, and talking to consumers about sustainability, but Barenblat called their eco-friendly collections “sustainable token lines. That’s what Boohoo did with Kortney Kardashian Parker. It’s very confusing for customers to understand what is sustainable and what isn’t.
“A lot of Shein’s profitability is fueled by young people talking about buying Shein in volumes and volumes,” Barenblat said. “It’s really the Amazon of fashion. It has risen to dominance, but there is an opportunity for better policies. Governments are starting crack down on all these claims.
“Currently, you can ship product into the United States tax free when it’s under $800 and Shein really takes advantage of that loophole,” Barenblat said. “Lawmakers should take notice and close that loophole. It’s impossible to compete with Shein products made in exploitative factories in China when they’re able to import them into the U.S. duty free.”
Even resale and repair isn’t entirely the answer. “One of the things we’ve seen is that virgin production and the second hand market are running parallel to one another,” Barenblat said. “Few companies are disclosing the total volume of production and as they move to resale, rental, repairs and secondhand platforms, virgin production is not going down. As long as we have that trend, brands are simply using circularity to sell more stuff.”
The fashion industry is growing at a rate of 2.7%. At that rate, none of the sustainability commitments that retailers and brands set for themselves are going to be met. “If you’re going to continue with investments in resale and secondhand and continue to make more and more virgin products, you’re never going to address the ecological harm, the waste, and the climate impact,” Barenblat said.
“That’s why in this report we call for more urgent reform,” she added. “For years, we’ve been calling on companies to report total volume of products produced year-over-year. Unless we have the right measure, it doesn’t matter how much you’re trying to deal with inventory.”
In the report only three companies, Burberry, 38 points; Everlane, 38, and H&M, 32, met all four of Re/make’s climate demands: publishing their full emissions; setting and having approved short-term 1.5℃ pathway-aligned SBTs; setting and having approved ambitious long-term net-zero targets, and demonstrating that they are reducing their total greenhouse gas emissions compared to their base years.
H&M’s high score, however, wasn’t due to any significant improvements on its own part, but rather the shortcomings in sustainability progress among its fellow fashion peers.
In fact, H&M Group now finds itself at the center of a class-action lawsuit for misleading customers with intentionally exaggerated sustainability marketing. Using various greenwashing tactics, H&M Group capitalized on sustainability’s growing importance to consumers, the report said.
Also, the fast fashion retailer’s ties to manufacturers that have committed wage theft “should obligate H&M to support garment worker unions in pushing forward collective bargaining as a crucial means of ensuring fair compensation for makers,” the report said.
Who exactly pays for a just climate transition isn’t completely clear. According to the report, 11 companies were investing with suppliers to offer financial incentives and a way for factories to be decarbonized. “When it comes to disclosure, what really is the carbon impact in the fashion supply chain,” Barenblat said. “And yet, we don’t have any financial incentives for suppliers to decarbonize.”
Companies that are lifting up the industry, include American Eagle Outfitters, 10 points; Gap, 16 points; Kering, 20, and Lululemon, 15, Barenblat said. “They’re doing [some things] right. We need more companies to be working with suppliers to assist them. Unless we have money set aside for a just transition, we’re going not going to get there.”
Twenty-four percent of the brands in the report have resale initiatives, but none were able to demonstrate that they are moving away from the production of new goods. Only Everlane, 38 points, Nike, 21, and Patagonia, 26, could show that they’re moving away from virgin oil-based synthetic material, the report said.
Of 58 companies, only Patagonia demonstrated significant progress towards living wages paid to workers in its supply chain, although it lost points in this area as progress stalled during the pandemic, the report said.
While the report reaches all of Re/make’s different stakeholders, including the press and policymakers, the real strength may lie with the next generation.
“When it comes to citizen engagement, we currently operate in 25 different universities,” Barenblat said. “We work with a lot of the students. This is something that’s used in classrooms. We also have 1,500 ambassadors.
“These are young fashion professionals as well as people who are deeply concerned about the the industry. In the report, we have a call to action for different stakeholders to look up the score of their favorite brands,” Barenblat said. “This is where we need bigger imaginations to reach the kind of just climate neutral fashion industry that we all want.”