Five years ago, Remake created an assessment criteria with the goal of guiding our community towards ethical and sustainable shopping alternatives to fast fashion — and since then, we’ve continued to fine-tune the process. In November 2022, Remake released our second annual Fashion Accountability Report, where we scored over 50 big name clothing companies and featured 15 small- and medium-sized enterprises. During our research, we found a number of troubling supply chain trends across the industry — but there were also a handful of significant sparks of change that appeared in our findings, pointing to the potential of future for fashion that is fair, humane ethical.
These six wins from this year’s report illustrate that the industry is ready and willing to become more ethical, more just, and more sustainable through tangible, positive actions – even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
While progress towards achieving a more sustainable clothing industry can often seem slow, if not outright daunting, we’d like to highlight six major wins in the areas of wages, commercial practices, policy, governance, and raw materials from our 2022 Accountability Report to celebrate the great work being done to create a more equitable and sustainable industry. In addition to being important achievements themselves, each of the following wins also hints at the broader impact within the industry going forward.
Here are the six sustainable fashion wins from Remake’s 2022 Fashion Accountability Report.
1. VICTORIA’S SECRET PAYS OVERDUE WAGE THEFT TO GARMENT WORKERS
Wage theft is consistently a concerning aspect in many business models of global apparel brands, not just an unintended result of varying crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Far from protecting the wages of workers in their supply chains, our report showed that nearly all global apparel companies engaged in harmful actions that aggravated and magnified the intrinsic condition of wage theft in their supply chains. Brands’ mass cancellations of orders – many complete or nearly complete – left suppliers under severe financial distress, often forcing them to resort to wage theft through unpaid or underpaid work, extensive layoffs, and denials of legally mandated severance.
In one of the most egregious cases documented, more than 1,250 Thai garment workers who sewed bras for Victoria’s Secret & Co., Lane Bryant and Torrid were left without millions of dollars in legally-owed severance when the Brilliant Alliance garment factory in Thailand abruptly shuttered in March 2021. Many workers, some of whom had worked for the factory for over 15 years, were essentially left destitute. The Thai government ordered its owner, Hong Kong-based Clover Group, to pay severance within 30 days. Clover refused, telling the factory’s 1,250 low-wage workers it had no money and that they should agree to wait 10 years to be paid in full.
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However, in a monumental show of international solidarity, labor rights advocates, including Remake, mobilized to support the factory’s union, Triumph International Union, in calling on Victoria’s Secret & Co. to step in and ensure workers received their full wages. While Remake and other advocates engaged Victoria’s Secret’s & Co. leadership in conversations behind the scenes, our global community took to social media in unity with the Thai workers and emailed Victoria’s Secret’s CEO, Martin Water, imploring him to intervene. Remake urged the company to consider how its commitment to garment workers — most of whom are women — factored into its feminist rebrand. In May 2022, Victoria’s Secret finally stepped up, by providing a zero-interest loan to Clover Group, thus ensuring that the workers ultimately got paid. Neither Torrid nor Sycamore Partners, the parent company of Lane Bryant, came to the table to contribute. The compensation provided to the workers included over one million dollars in interest, per Thai law.
The Victoria’s Secret/Brilliant Alliance case is one of the largest single-factory settlements of a wage theft case by a brand, and thus, a tremendous victory. This win is a testament to the power of social organizing and collective civic action: citizens, workers and labor rights groups coming together to hold brands accountable. And although it required collective pressure for Victoria’s Secret to ultimately pay up, it is also an example of a clothing company finally taking responsibility for and being accountable to its broader community of employees. As thousands of other workers around the globe continue to await wages and severance that is legally owed to them, this case underscores the need for companies to sign binding agreements – such as Buyer Codes of Conduct – to protect workers (#PayYourWorkers) so that it is not the most vulnerable employees who bear all of the economic burden of future climate, pandemic and economic shocks. And ultimately, this case further serves to demonstrate why we need strong legislation that compels brands to be responsible and accountable for workers throughout their value chain.
2. GANNI BECOMES FIRST KNOWN BRAND TO SIGN A BUYER CODE OF CONDUCT
A company’s commercial practices dictate its workers’ rights. Fair prices, fair payment terms, humane production speeds and mutually agreed upon exit strategies are the backbone of fair commercial practices. However, for decades apparel companies have imposed Supplier Codes of Conduct onto their factories without acknowledging that their own commercial practices — such as the prices they pay and the swift changes in orders they make — actually affect the ability of factories to meet these ethical standards.
The pandemic-induced cancellation crisis, including the Victoria’s Secret case above, laid bare these unfair commercial practices. Remake’s #PayUp movement, organized in response to the subsequent humanitarian crisis that came in the wake of Covid-19, underscored the need for fair and legally binding commercial practices such as Buyer Codes of Conduct.
And yet, nearly three years on, companies have not learned from the order cancellation crisis of 2020. Unethical commercial practices continue to be the norm in the industry. Spooked by fears of an impending recession, Boohoo, ASOS and Misguided were accused of canceling orders in September at their Leicester, UK factories. US retailers Kohl’s, Macy’s, Target and Walmart also canceled orders to “better balance inventory levels,” the same “strategy” used at the start of the pandemic.
In Remake’s 2022 Fashion Accountability Report, no big brand can demonstrate that its purchasing practices ensure its suppliers’ abilities to guarantee and support fair wages or social and environmental sustainability.
But in a precedent-setting move, Danish fashion company Ganni disclosed this year that it has strengthened its commercial practices by incorporating a Buyer Code of Conduct into its purchase order contracts. This is a huge win towards a more ethical and humane supply chain. While Ganni is not included in the aggregate scores in this year’s report (because the company does not meet the revenue threshold), its leadership should be applauded.
By introducing a Buyer Code of Conduct, Ganni recognizes that it has an equal role to play in upholding standards of social and environmental responsibility within its supplier factories. Furthermore, by enshrining its commitments into its purchase order contracts, Ganni’s responsibility becomes legally enforceable. This alone is an incredibly important step towards leveling the playing field between brands and their suppliers. And while we don’t know the exact contract terms, by adopting the principles of the American Bar Association’s Responsible Purchasing Code of Conduct, Ganni is mitigating undue risk that was previously unfairly borne by suppliers. As a well known brand, Ganni’s commitment to the Buyer Code of Conduct paves the way for other companies to follow suit.
3. SOME BIG BRANDS Are BEING MORE TRANSPARENT ABOUT LIVING WAGE PROGRESS
Both the United Nations and the ILO recognize a living wage as a human right. Yet fashion is an industry built upon poverty pay. Wages are notoriously low across the entire value chain affecting both direct employees (i.e corporate and retail workers) and indirect employees (i.e. warehouse workers, models and cut-and-sew garment workers, etc.) Failure to provide a living wage not only denies a decent standard of living to employees, it also compounds fashion’s racial and gender inequality, and socio-economic mobility problems.
Unsurprisingly, Remake found that no company paid all of their indirect employees living wages. However, in a win for wage transparency there are indications brands are taking more responsibility for living wages of their workers:
Four companies (7%) – Hanesbrands Inc., Patagonia, Ralph Lauren and Reformation – published some progress towards living wages in their supply chains in addition to disclosing the methodology they use to quantify a living wage.
Five companies (9%) — Burberry, Kering (Gucci, Balenciaga), Marks & Spencer, PUMA and Reformation — published partial information indicating that some of their direct employees – i.e. corporate or retail workers – earn a living wage.
While much more comprehensive and robust wage transparency context is needed – such as workforce demographics that include age, gender, location, job/role, etc. – the significance of wage transparency cannot be overstated. Pay transparency is crucial to empowering workers, because when workers know they are paid fairly, they have freedom of association in relation to protecting their own safety and well-being. Wage transparency can also serve as a step toward pay equity by exposing bias and pay inequities, and help to identify the underlying causes. For fashion, this is critically important, because women represent around 80 per cent of the workforce in the garment sector worldwide. And, as more wage protections such as California’s Garment Worker Protection Act (SB62) are passed, publicly disclosed pay information helps to hold brands accountable.
4. BRANDS PLEDGE TO SUPPORT THE FABRIC ACT
Fashion is a notoriously unregulated industry. Today, companies’ operations span across continents, making it seemingly impossible to standardize a system that falls under the jurisdiction of different governments, and consequently, different labor and environmental laws. With little to no oversight or meaningful repercussions, many brands exploit this lack of regulation to the detriment of their employees and the environment.
But industry activists and organizers are increasingly aware of the need for, and viability of, fashion policy as a mechanism for systemic change, and as such, a slew of policies have been introduced or passed of late, including California’s Garment Worker Protection Act (SB62) and the FABRIC Act.
The FABRIC Act, which aims to end wage theft for garment workers on a federal level, establish brand accountability, and incentivize the return of garment production in the U.S., has been officially endorsed by nearly 100 companies thus far. And in a major win, Reformation and Everlane have pledged support to the FABRIC Act.
Everlane and Reformation’s endorsements indicate that these brands recognize that they have an equal role to play in upholding standards of social and environmental responsibility within their supplier factories – this is good governance. They are willing to be held accountable and to comply with legally enforceable standards in order to ensure the well-being of their workers, and they understand that legislative action and policies like the FABRIC Act are needed to level the playing field and provide the incentives for industry action. Support from influential brands like this can motivate other brands in the industry to support such legislation, rather than try to weaken or lobby against it.
5. 17 COMPANIES (46%) OF THE RELEVANT COMPANIES FEATURED IN THe REPORT HAVE SIGNED THE INTERNATIONAL ACCORD.
Absent government legislation, fashion needs good policies including binding commitments and private regulatory measures to strengthen human and labor rights in fashion. The Rana Plaza collapse of 2013 served as a catalyst for the garment industry, accelerating processes that had started years before to address the problem of dangerous workplaces in Bangladesh. The establishment of the original Bangladesh Accord, only weeks after the collapse, was a departure from the corporate-led voluntary, commercial system of auditing that had failed to prevent the mass disasters of the months, years and decades before. In an industry plagued with social and environmental injustice, the Bangladesh Accord stands out as a shining success story because it led to the overhaul of thousands of factories and to the protection of millions of workers.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the new International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry was agreed upon in August 2021, and expanded its scope to include garment worker health and wellbeing. It will also extend the program’s life-saving benefits to at least one other major garment-producing nation. Committing to the International Accord demonstrates good governance by acknowledging and investing in the communities where these clothing companies do business.
It is therefore a huge win that 17 (46%) of relevant companies (those who source from Bangladesh) in Remake’s 2022 Accountability Report have signed onto the International Accord. By committing to the International Accord, these companies are agreeing to protect and empower their workers through various worker-driven programs and a binding agreement. They are committing to independent, transparent, and regular oversight.
By committing to the International Accord, these brands have joined over 160 other signatories who have also committed to transparency and accountability. They are paving the way towards leveling the playing field between brands and suppliers, and demonstrating leadership amidst a field of high profile companies who refuse to sign, including Levi Strauss & Co. (Only time will tell if the pressure of being an outlier on the International Accord will spur Levi’s to action.)
6. Three BRANDS ACTUALLY REDUCED VIRGIN POLYESTER USAGE
Fashion must significantly reduce its dependence on synthetic textiles, particularly virgin synthetics, if we are to have any hope of making real progress on the overwhelming burden of plastics in our biosphere. Synthetic textiles are fossil-fuel derived, non-biodegradable, and non-compostable. They shed microplastics into our waterways, soil and air. They are in most of what we wear and now account for over two-thirds of all fiber production, with polyester alone comprising just over half. As consumers start to piece together the links between fashion, big oil, and the climate crisis, replacing a reliance on virgin polyester with a reliance on recycled polyester (rPET) gives companies a quick and easy sustainability story to tell. The promise of rPET production is that it is less carbon-intensive and less wasteful to produce than virgin materials.
But recycled polyester is still…polyester. It doesn’t perform any better, it doesn’t eliminate microplastics, and it’s still non-biodegradable and non-compostable.
Nonetheless, there is significant momentum in the fashion industry around recycled polyester. Many brands are claiming to increase their usage of recycled polyester, but they are likely also increasing use of virgin polyester as they increase their overall production volumes, thus adding to the plastic burden. That is not progress.
However, three companies (5%) – Everlane, Nike, Inc., and Patagonia – can demonstrate and report that their usage of virgin oil-based synthetic materials is decreasing – not simply that their use of recycled content is increasing. This is significant, because it means these companies are actually making progress towards replacing virgin synthetics with recycled fiber. While these efforts will not completely eliminate synthetics, by significantly reducing or even eliminating virgin oil-based synthetic materials brands have the potential to slow the growth of synthetics and synthetic textile waste on our planet – particularly if these efforts also include curbing overall production volumes. As it seems that plastics will forever be in our environment until we find a way to safely and effectively remove them, the most impactful action would be to stop introducing new sources through virgin production.
“THE TIMES, THEY ARE A CHANGIN’”
2022 proved to be a year of conflicting truths in fashion: hints of systemic change amidst a disheartening acceleration of harmful business practices. These six wins from this year’s report illustrate that the industry is ready and willing to become more ethical, more just, and more sustainable through tangible, positive actions – even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. And so we cannot – and must not – give up. We must continue to push for actions, policies and binding agreements that hold fashion brands accountable and provide justice for people and planet.
Remake is on a mission to change the way we consume fashion. We’re dedicated to holding brands accountable for labor and environmental injustices, while simultaneously providing safe working environments and living wages for garment workers around the world.