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 suffered physical injury due to old building codes and other violations. Wage fraud is still rampant. In order to reduce the economic pressure and pain, prices have fallen to the bottom of supply chains where workers bear the brunt of the burden.
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.”
Re/make reviewed 58 companies in the 2022 report. This is an increase from 46 last year. Chanel scored 8 points and J.Crew got 10 while Allbirds received 3.
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.
Brands and retailers can score 150 points. They are evaluated 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 150 sounds too low, it’s because the bar has been 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.
Re/make interviewed 17 companies, representing 29% of the total cohort. “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 continues to be one of the lowest-scoring companies this year, the report stated. It also said that Walmart has been involved in major wage theft cases both in India and Bangladesh in 2022.
According to the report, Walmart’s suppliers in Karnataka and India are making payments to employees who owe arrears because they failed to pay the minimum wage. However, Walmart has not made any amends for the billions in orders it cancelled globally to address inventory problems and maintain low prices.
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. In addition to its usual low prices on food, the retailer claimed that it made significant investments. For $9.99, you can get a jaw-dropping price on apparel like the Eloquii Elements mixed printed midi dress.
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 brands refuse to engage with any of the climate-related human rights violations and climate impacts that they bring up.
“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. Re/make found that they were severely lacking in substance when it looked at them.
This includes Shein, 8, Missguided 9, Boohoo 9 and Savage by Fenty 4, which was in many ways built to empower women. “When you look at how Fenty treats workers in the supply chain, which are predominately women, it really falls short,” Barenblat said.
Missguided, an ultra-fast fashion brand, seems to have misunderstood. They launch a drop of up 1,000 styles per week in the name affordability and barely recognize their predominantly female garment workers.
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. The report stated that Missguided is not transparent about worker wages, factory conditions and coverage by collective bargaining arrangements, as well as commercial practices.
“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.”
Barenblat stated that Ganni, a small brand, has adopted a buyer code. This is the first time such a move was made. 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. Although it has taken over, there are still opportunities for better policies. All these claims are being challenged by the government.
“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.”
Fashion industry growth is at 2.7% Retailers and brands are not going to meet their sustainability commitments at this rate. “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, eleven companies invested in suppliers to provide financial incentives as well as a way for factories decarbonizing. “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.”
American Eagle Outfitters is 10 points; Gap 16 points; Kering 20; and Lululemon 15, Barenblat stated. “They’re doing [some things] right. To help them, we need more companies that work with suppliers. Unless we have money set aside for a just transition, we’re going not going to get there.”
The report revealed that 24 percent of the brands have resale plans, but none could show that they are moving away form the production and sale 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.
The report stated that only Patagonia, out of 58 companies, made significant progress toward living wages for workers in its supply chains, even though it lost points due to stagnant progress during the pandemic.
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.”