Eyes on supply
A major issue for many businesses hoping to use the locally-made claim is that not all parts or materials are available from local producers. For example, Bramley’s Private Collection knitwear might be made in New Zealand from Kiwi wool, but the wool was turned into yarn overseas.
“We have to import yarn from Europe, there’s no one in New Zealand doing it,” he says. “Often New Zealand merino goes all the way over there, gets spun and dyed, and comes back here.”
The major factor in the decision around where a product was produced is substantial transformation. Were the major steps in the processing of the product taken in New Zealand?
Here is an example from the Commerce Commission:
A health supplement company was marketing a product as 100 percent made in New Zealand. Although the ingredients were turned into tablets in Christchurch, eight of the 12 listed ingredients were imported from overseas, including the two active ingredients. The active ingredients were turned into powder overseas, and were literally just being poured into capsules in Christchurch. The court found that the ‘substantial transformation’ of the product occurred overseas, that the manufacturing steps taken in Christchurch were insignificant and, therefore, that the claim of being made in New Zealand was misleading.
For many consumers, the main driver behind buying a locally made product is the assumption that the retailer and manufacturer will have good authority over the supply chain.
“There is an assumption that a garment made in New Zealand is ethical by default – this isn’t true. The final stage manufacturing might be happening in New Zealand where exploitation is unlikely. But we don’t grow cotton or manufacture fabric, so these companies have to source those products from overseas. You need to have eyes on the whole length of your supply chain,” says Claire Hart, advocacy and education manager for Tear Fund.
She says many companies are disappointed with their Ethical Fashion Report grade the first time because although they’ve taken vital steps toward being more ethical they often don’t have eyes on their whole supply chain.
“Fast fashion is very problematic,” Hart says. “The short lead times for product put pressure on factories, who subcontract and that reduces the oversight the end company has over who is producing their clothes.”
The importance of ethics
Carolyn Enting, editor of Good magazine and former fashion editor of Mindfood, says ethics is ingrained in modern consumer behavior.
“I work in an office filled with Millennials who check the [Tear Fund Ethical Fashion Report] before making purchases and who will not buy from anyone who scores a C or less,” she says. “Customers are now also asking more questions.”
“About 70 percent of our customers are driven by the quality of our products, the rest by the ethics and sustainability, but I reckon in a few years that will be 50/50,” says Private Collection’s Bramley, who notes his products are more sustainable and actually cheaper than many imports, because you get more wears per dollar spend. “There will always be a contingent of people who don’t care [about ethics], who just want cheaper, but I believe people are getting sick of ‘fast fashion’.”
Does that mean retailers should drop their internationally manufactured brands and switch to products grown on home turf?
“I think most retailers would find it difficult to survive on New Zealand-only brands,” says Bramley. “There isn’t a big enough selection at the moment, so few people are manufacturing here. They may also benefit from a mix of price points on the shop floor.”
Enting agrees, noting that made in New Zealand options aren’t always cost effective.
“Certainly early adopters like Starfish made such a strong commitment to sustainability and ‘Made in New Zealand’ that the cost ultimately put them out of business,” she says. “But those hard costs are coming down, and there is now higher awareness and demand for ethical and sustainable fashion. If you want to future proof your business, being ethical is a necessity.”
“Imported” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Many products manufactured overseas can and do have high ethical credentials. Supporting those businesses is a global game-changer.
“The fashion industry employs around 60 million people globally in production, 40 million in the Asia Pacific region alone,” says Tear Fund’s Hart. “The industry provides jobs to huge number of people, and creates trillions of dollars of export revenue for low income countries. Millions of people have been able to move from a subsistence life into factory work and can provide a better life for their family.”
Hart says that ethical fabricators in emerging economies should be encouraged, and that the retailer has the power to demand certain standards have been met.
“We have to remember the potential the fashion industry has to bring good into people’s lives.”
Earlier this year I spoke to the chief executive of New Zealand-based sustainable uniform and branded apparel company Little Yellow Bird, Samantha Jones. She has worked with her chosen plants in India to make sure they meet a high standard. She says large companies need to be more proactive in demanding similar.
“It’s not hard for big companies to switch to more ethical manufacturing. Companies can use a ladder system where they go to the most ethical factory first, encouraging manufacturers to take positive steps,” says Jones, who is keen to point out this needn’t drastically affect price point.
“There was a report recently that said you would only have to charge customers an extra 50c per unit to pay workers in Bangladesh a minimum wage. Most consumers in New Zealand wouldn’t notice an extra 50c.”
Hart says that through working with Tear Fund and Behind the Barcode, many companies have raised their score in the ethical fashion report, and raised the standards of living and working for many people in the developing world.
“A number of companies that we assess in New Zealand work hard to improve. Hallenstein Glasson, for example – when they were first assessed they got a low grade and a lot of flak,” says Hart. “After three years they’ve turned ethical fashion into something they value as a company and we’ve seen that progress through the increase in their grade.”
Authentic labelling and ethics as part of your brand pillar are genuinely good for businesses, whether the product is New Zealand made or not.
“Retailers who do their best to start making changes will be respected by their staff as well as customers,” says Good’s Enting. “Staff will be proud to share initiatives and it will strengthen consumer confidence.”