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Outland CEO Says BWA Report Hinders Ethical Fashion Movement

Rivet’s 2021 winter issue has dropped! This in-depth issue examines the steps the global denim industry is taking to minimize its impact on the environment, from implementing zero waste production and design processes to establishing greenhouse gas emissions goals aligned with the Paris Agreement.

Outland Denim founding CEO James Bartle took to Instagram Monday to call Baptist World Aid’s (BWA) 2021 Ethical Fashion Report “one of the greatest setbacks to the ethical and environmental sustainability movements I’ve witnessed in the past 10 years.”

For the second consecutive year, the Australian denim brand earned an A+, the highest ranking possible  alongside clothing brands Etiko, Joyya Apparel and Mighty Good Basics. Bartle, however, is dismayed by some of brands that earned an A grade. Without naming names, the executive said he is “shocked to see brands who are responsible for huge human rights abuses, let alone a legacy of negative cultural change with the rise of fast fashion, scored an A.”

“I would like to say that I support what BWA are trying to achieve, but I do not support the current representation of their ratings,” Bartle said.

The brands that scored an A include Adidas, Berlei, Champion, Country Road, H&M, Hanes, Lululemon, Nike, Nudies Jeans Co. Patagonia, Reebok, The North Face, Vans, Witchery and Zara.

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The results of the Australian nonprofit organization’s report are intended to serve as an ethical shopping guide for consumers. For the 2021 report released last week, BWA assessed 420 brands in five areas: policies and governance, tracing and risk, supplier relationships and human rights monitoring, worker empowerment, and environmental sustainability. BWA used publicly available information and evidence directly disclosed to the organization for the assessments.

Brands that received an A+ earned a perfect score across all five categories. Brands that averaged an A could receive the grade while still earning a D in one category. BWA states that for a company to receive an A grade, it must score between 50-75 percent on the 46-question survey. For example, Nike and Vans earned an A overall despite receiving a D grade for worker empowerment.

“How is it possible that certain brands score so highly, and yet have a reputation of exploitation on both social and environmental levels?” Bartle asked in his open letter, adding that any score above a C would lead most people to presume that it passed on one of the most important factors.

“On one hand, we have a report that has, and continues to do so much good with unbiased auditing and that each year achieves impressive reach in the community, yet on the other hand, we now see a report that is misleading to consumers,” he said.

Bartle shared these concerns with Peter Keegan, BWA director of advocacy, before sharing the letter on social media. Though he was “impressed with his humility” and “commitment to fight for the vulnerable,” Bartle is dissatisfied as the report still “leaves already exploitative brands with one of the highest endorsements in the ethical reporting ring.”

Outland, in comparison, was formed as part of Bartle’s plan to provide income to young women in Cambodia. While it launched in 2008 as a means to provide victims of sexual exploitation with safe and dignified employment as they rebuilt their lives, the sustainable denim brand has since widened to accept employees from varying backgrounds of vulnerability and exploitation. The company received Thomson Reuters 2020 Stop Slavery Enterprise Award. The award recognizes companies that have taken concrete steps to eradicate forced labor from their supply chains and business operations.

“Unfortunately, with the current display of the brand rankings, I fear most shoppers looking to use the guide will unknowingly be supporting brands that are not in alignment with their own values and, once again, these fashion giants will leap ahead and use this report as a powerful greenwashing tool,” he stated. “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 that the way this report displays its ratings makes things even more confusing.”

Rivet reached out to BWA for a comment but has yet to hear back. Prior to Bartle’s statements, BWA explained in an Instagram post that is possible for fast-fashion brands to score an A despite links to a “destructive culture change” because they are “doing better than most at mitigating worker exploitation in their supply chain.” BWA points out that these companies’ scale allows them to invest in resources to prevent modern slavery and technologies that reduce fashion’s impact on the environment.

Other denim brands were graded by BWA. Abrand Jeans, Calivn Klein, Gap, Levi’s and Neuw Denim received B grades. Abercrombie & Fitch, Blue Denim Co. and Just Jeans earned a C. Jeanswest and Forever 21 were among the brands to earn an F.