Unless you’re a tremendous nerd who likes making excel charts on a Saturday afternoon (like myself), the idea of doing research may make you balk. As much as I like research it can be, which seems to be the general theme of all things ethical, incredibly overwhelming. (See my blog 6 Fast Fashion Brands I’m Avoiding to see some of the sources I use to evaluate brands to determine if I feel comfortable supporting them).
If you’d like to skip out on my little mini soapbox about the important of doing your research about the brands you’re supporting here’s a shortcut that I’ve used this entire year: just thrift! You won’t be supporting ongoing labor trafficking or unethical factory practices, you won’t be creating demand for fast fashion and you’ll be giving new life to old garments and reducing the amount of clothing that just ends up in a landfill.
The more I work to research, the more I feel that the best decision I can make to stay in line with my personal values is to just keep thrifting. With the exception of undergarments and bathing suits, I think I can comfortably get all that I need secondhand for my business casual office life and hangout times with my husband and friends. I’ve exclusively bought secondhand all for 2019 and haven’t encountered any issues that I haven’t been able to overcome so far but I vow to be transparent when I do!
And with that, back to the topic at hand; the important of researching. It’s rarely as straight forward as I’d like it to be, as I’ll share today.
As an example, let’s take a minute to catch up on current events surrounding the brand, Uniqlo. Before I share that, however, let me share with you about the brand and my own research on it.
According to Wikipeda, Uniqlo is “a Tokyo fashion and clothing company. It is a fast growing company, one of the five biggest specialty fashion retailers in the world. The company makes T-shirts, jeans, and casual wear for both women and men. It is owned by Fast Retailing, a Hiroshima based company.” When you take time to read their ‘Who We Are’ on their website, there’s a section on sustainability that you can click on to be re-routed to an entire separate portion of their website dedicated to their incredibly impressive looking initiatives, especially for me.
Image from: https://www.uniqlo.com/us/en/special/sustainability/
I have to tell you, this is the kind of marketing that sucks me right in because of my concerns with workers particularly. Right underneath this image there’s even more subsections that you can click on detailing their other initiatives: refugees and others in need, special needs, youth and environment.
They sound incredible at this point, right? It would be really tempting for me to just breeze over this and call it a day but, I can at the very least do a quick round and add maybe another 10 minutes to my original 5 minutes of reading. Based all I’ve seen on their site so far, it should be easy enough to corroborate Uniqlo’s ethical practices and get some more in-depth information from a third party.
Since I have the DoneGood browser plug-in, I went ahead and just checked the icon in the corner to see the little check mark that shows it’s been approved. I was redirected to other approved sites and there was no check. Next, I pulled up the Fashion Revolution 2018 Transparency Index which has evaluated 150 of the biggest brands and complied it into a report for consumers. Uniqlo received an overall score of 29% (72 points out of 250 points) falling in the same bracket as COACH, New Balance, LOFT and Walmart. The report states “these may be publishing a supplier list but not with many details other than factory name and address”.
This doesn’t sound too promising to me, but I have a few more sources I want to check first. Baptist World Aid just released their 2019 Ethical Fashion Guide, so I scrolled down to the ‘U’s to see what grade Uniqlo received. I was surprised that it received a B+, so I read on about their grading system.
“Higher grades correspond to companies with a ethical sourcing system that, if implemented well, should reduce the risk and extent of exploitation in the production of that company’s products… It is important to note that a high grade does not mean that a company has a supply chain which is free from exploitation. Rather, it is an indicator of the efforts the company is undertaking and the strength of its systems to reduce the risk of exploitation.”
Things are getting nice and confusing.
I’m going to finish up my research with my favorite and most convenient source: the Good On You App.
Right away I zero in on the labor score which leaves a lot to be desired. The report goes on to say “It traces some of its supply chain including final stage, inputs and raw materials. It likely does not publicly list its suppliers but it does ensure that none or only a small amount of subcontracting occurs. It audits only a small portion of its traced facilities over a two-year period across its supply chain. It has no worker empowerment initiatives in its supply chain. It has made little to no progress towards paying a living wage across its supply chain.“
It’s pretty shocking for a brand that states: “We promote the wellbeing of every worker by supporting efforts to create safe and healthy working conditions and UNIQLO works closely with each factory to ensure the production of high quality clothes.”
Now that I’ve shared my personal research, let’s address the recent and ongoing issues surrounding Uniqlo. One of the many things I really enjoy about the amazing ladies I’ve been able to meet in the ethical fashion community is how much I’ve been able to learn from them. My girl Alissa (who was my first feature for my interview series if you’d like to be inspired) shared a post detailing the atrocities of wage theft against Warni and Yayat, two Indonesian textile workers who made Uniqlo clothing for decades. From April 2 to April 7, these two brave individuals marched during the Uniqlo store opening in Demark because their salaries still have not been paid.
In 2014, Uniqlo withdrew their orders without warning from the Jaba Garmindo factory in Indonesia. In an article from the Clean Clothes Campaign, further details are provided about the egregious injustice towards thousands of textile workers:
“Just months after Uniqlo’s orders ended the factory fell into bankruptcy and the workers at the Jaba Garmindo factory – 80% of whom are women – went from having a reliable source of income to being left jobless and fighting for their livelihoods. Even worse, the money they are legally owed in unpaid wages and severance pay – amounting to at least $5.5 million USD – continues to be denied to them. These workers earned this money over many years of working long hours to produce clothes for Uniqlo and other brands. Some women worked for over a decade at the factory. To deny them their payment now is tantamount to wage theft.”
If your blood isn’t already boiling, here’s the cherry on top:
“Uniqlo’s founder and CEO, Tadashi Yanai, has built up his own personal wealth to an estimated $16 billion, making him the second richest man in Japan and among the richest in the world. Uniqlo can easily pay off the debt to these workers – workers whose labour helped build this fortune.”
It may seem pretty obvious at this point that Uniqlo isn’t a brand that you’d feel comfortable supporting–it’s hard to come back from publicized, documented exploitation of workers, though I personally hope Uniqlo takes the public and private steps to make this situation right, apologize, pay their employees and change their policies to become more transparent. In this particular case, there’s a very glaring and public scandal that in some ways, makes the decision for us.
The real problem comes down to the fact that sometimes without a blatant crisis or scandal, we simply don’t care. It’s feels justified to come in with a blaze of glory and pronounce judgement on brands that have openly made mistakes, like Uniqlo. Frankly, it’s easy to do. What’s not easy to do is to push past the well worded mission statements on brands websites and attractively curated Instagram feeds and take time to do your own research and form your own conclusions. Growing up in church, my pastor always said to not simply believe him because preaches from a pulpit, but to take time to research and pray to see if what he said was true. I hope to try to take that with me in every area of my life, including ethical fashion, because my goodness, it’s a lot to navigate with all this greenwashing.
Whether we come to the same conclusions on brands isn’t my personal goal by this post. I hope to encourage you and to give you some tools to do your own research, if you didn’t already have them. Only you can decide what your values are, what you want to prioritize and who you want to ultimately support and I support you in that! The world has never been made better by us shutting off our brains and following the lead of someone else and their opinions and it certainly won’t start now with you listening to me without doing your own research!
Have you encountered green washing during your research? What is your criteria for evaluating and supporting brands? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!