In Baptist World Aid’s special 2020 Covid Fashion report, it found 82 per cent of Australian consumers wanted to see clothing companies pay workers fairly – a basic human right.

I started Outland Denim 10 years ago. As a social enterprise, this backs up what we already know based on the countless number of times we are asked for ethical shopping recommendations by customers. Up until this year, Baptist World Aid’s annual Ethical Fashion Report was one of the first places we would send people.

But, in the 2021 report, of the 420 brands included only 15 per cent could demonstrate paying a living wage in any of their final stage facilities. “When it comes to payment in all final stage factories that drops to just four per cent, which is a pretty devastating figure,” Baptist World Aid Australia’s ethical fashion coordinator Bonnie Graham told Broadsheet at the time.

If you look at the overall company grades, many of those achieving As and Bs score well on policy and governance, but then those same companies almost unanimously get Ds or even Fs for worker empowerment, which addresses living wages. How is it possible that certain brands can score so highly, and yet have a reputation of social and environmental exploitation?

I believe this report is potentially one of the greatest setbacks to the ethical and environmental sustainability movements I’ve witnessed in the past 10 years.

Before sharing these sentiments publicly, I felt it was only fair to first call Baptist World Aid’s director of advocacy Peter Keegan and air my concerns. I was nothing but impressed with his humility and commitment to fight for the vulnerable. I have confidence that Keegan and his team are fighting for the same reasons my team and I are.

I don’t say these things from an ivory tower, but from a place of genuine concern. You can read more on this in my open letter posted on Instagram. My issue is not with the report itself. I believe the research from Baptist World Aid is excellent. I have seen first-hand the level of detail it asks of brands. My issue is with the grading system and how this is presented to consumers.

In the minds of consumers, an A, B or even a C overall grading is like a greenlight to shop there.

Baptist World Aid states that brands are required to score 50 to 75 per cent overall to receive an A. Further, the charity organisation explains that the grades are: “An indication of where companies sit compared to their peers and the industry average. Because the industry as a whole scores so low, those brands scoring 50 per cent are well ahead of the average.”

The report notes that the scale used a mean company score of 33.6 out of 100 in 2021 as the threshold between a B and C grade. In the interest of transparency, this is the first year Baptist World Aid has released this grading methodology publicly.

When the report was released, one Instagrammer commented: “Just because the industry standard is so low, doesn’t mean companies who do the bare minimum deserve such high rankings. You guys have the power to [effect] real change. 50 per cent should be an F, just like real life.”

This last comment – “Just like real life” – perfectly illustrates my point.

Many of us in Australia have been brought up in an education system where A equals excellence, top of the class, but this does not align with Baptist World Aid’s grading system. Sure, this is all very clear when you read the methodology laid out in the full report, but again, these grades are marketed as a simple guide, to be used at a glance.

As good and thorough as the report is, we cannot assume that consumers – who are time-poor and frustrated with doing this kind of research – are going to read the full 55 pages. Therefore, I fear that most shoppers looking to use the guide that accompanies the report will unknowingly be supporting brands that are not in alignment with their own values. At the same time, these fashion giants will leap ahead and use the report as a powerful greenwashing tool.

I believe Baptist World Aid should be commended on the impressive reach their report receives each year with widespread coverage across social media and in mainstream media. Our own website users went up by 70 per cent the day of the report’s release. While this is testament to the report’s power and the trust it has built in the community, this means Baptist World Aid has a huge responsibility.

We know that for consumers, navigating endless certifications, supply-chain industry lingo and greenwashing is already a pain-point in trusting brands, and I fear the way this report displays its ratings makes things even more confusing.

This confusion actually does brands like ours a disservice as it makes people even more skeptical. It makes it difficult to build the brand-customer trust necessary to succeed.

This is why I believe it is critical that the report grades are taken down and revised with urgency, so that ultimately, it maintains its legitimacy in the marketplace.

What resources should we use to shop ethically?

There is a deluge of greenwashing online that you will have to wade through to come to your own conclusions. Even genuinely sustainable brands, ethical fashion guides and ethical fashion advocates have their shortcomings. But short of a globally recognised gold standard that addresses all aspects of clothing ethics and environmental stewardship, much like Australia’s own ECA accreditation, which doesn’t cover brands like ours who manufacture overseas, I suggest the following:

Reach out directly to your favourite brands
Ask them if their manufacturers and supply-chain workers receive a living wage.

Respectfully reach out to Baptist World Aid
Express your personal concerns with the grading system. My hope is that this report can be revised, stat.

Buy from ethical retailers (online or offline)
Support businesses who stock ethical and sustainable brands – they need our support.

Join the campaigners
Follow and support Fashion Revolution, the Clean Clothes Campaign and Remake to advocate for fair treatment of garment workers globally.

James Bartle is the founding CEO of Outland Denim. Broadsheet also interviewed Bartle and Baptist World Aid about this year’s Ethical Fashion Guide in October.