An advocate for ethical fashion retail says top brands are not doing enough to protect workers in their international supply chains despite attempts being made.

One hundred and fourteen companies were graded by relief and development group Tearfund on their ethical fashion practices, with three of five highest-rated brands from New Zealand.

Icebreaker was found to be the most improved retail brand, jumping from a D- grade in last year's report to an A+, based on its transparency across supply chains, worker rights, policies and practices in place.

The companies were assessed at three critical stages of the supply chain – raw materials, input production and final stage production.

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Outdoors clothing retailer Kathmandu and Kowtow also rated highly.

Glasson Hallenstein Holdings, the owner of Glassons and Hallenstein store, was given a B+ grade, Macpac a B grade and The Warehouse Group a C grade.

High fashion brand Trelise Cooper was the lowest graded New Zealand retailer - given a F grade, along with K&K Fashions and children's wear company T&T, all of which did not participate in the research.

Mid-market department store Farmers was given a D- grading and Ruby Apparel a D+.

Karen Walker received a C grading and menswear retailer Barkers received a C+ grading.

Trelise Cooper: F

Designer Trelise Cooper said her brand received an F grading due to not taking part in the research, and it wasn't a reflection of its practices.

"The issues raised by the report are very important to us, our customers and our suppliers. The F rating is not in fact a rating of Trelise Cooper or its ethics. It is simply a reflection of the fact Trelise Cooper did not participate in the survey," Cooper said. "Like the women who wear my clothing, I am deeply serious about social responsibility and strong, ethical standards. Trelise Cooper is committed to a culture of positive environmental and sustainable best practices.

"The reality is Tearfund approached us to provide information, and we did our best to cooperate but in the end we could not meet arbitrary deadlines set by that organisation."

K&K Fashions: F

K&K Fashions general manager Avi Korpus said they were contacted late in the year leaving them with insufficient time to engage with the process.

"Obviously we are disappointed with the grade. However it is important to note that it does not reflect our measure of social responsibility but only that we chose not to fully engage with the research this year.

"We did personally meet with the organiser and explained that we are totally committed to ethical sourcing and gave examples of our efforts. However as a very small company some of the requirements that are required by Tearfund to prove our efforts are simply not yet formalised or readily available.

"The reason we did not engage this year is that in order to make a meaningful step towards documenting and formalising our existing ethical standards we needed more time. We were only contacted very late in the calendar year there just wasn't sufficient time to engage fully before the set deadline. We will undoubtedly engage next year by which time we can have everything in place to get a meaningful grade that reflects our actual efforts which are not insignificant."

Max: D+

Max's executive director Simon West said the reason for its D+ grade was because it did not participate in the survey.

"Max appreciates the work Baptist World Aid and Tearfund does in researching and reporting on manufacturing in the fashion industry. Max has taken the decision not to participate in the survey this year. We're doing a lot of work in this area and have made our social responsibility programme information available directly to our customers and other interested parties on our website.

"We're an ethically responsible business with many programmes in place to continuously improve our product sourcing and environmental impact, and we're confident our sourcing processes ensure the workers in our factories are working in a safe environment, and are there of their own accord. Over the past year we've made several focused improvements to our business operations, and commit to continuing these improvements and maintaining transparency on our social responsibility programmes."

Ruby Apparel: D+

A spokeswoman from Ruby said they were committed to ensuring everything in their supply chain was ethically sourced and pointed out 60 per cent of their clothing was made in New Zealand.

General manager Emily Miller-Sharma said the disappointing grade in their first year of participation had highlighted what they needed to work on.

"Ruby team members, including myself, visit all of our factories both in China and New Zealand regularly. We've seen the facilities, we know the workers, they're part of the Ruby family," she said.

"As it stands, our auditing process does not meet the requirements set by Tearfund, so right now, our focus is to redress this."

Independent audits on Ruby factories in China and New Zealand were under way and they were sampling and testing the use of recycled fabrics and working with their New Zealand-based fabric suppliers to ensure all materials were ethically sourced.

Tearfund ethical fashion project manager Claire Hart said they were looking forward to working with Ruby over the coming months on areas for improvement that were identified through the research.

"Starting the journey towards ethical procurement is always a challenge, but it's encouraging to see what can be achieved when companies commit to incorporating ethical practice in their operations."

Other companies with low ratings that were approached for comment did not respond last night.

NZ making progress

Overall, New Zealand companies scored an average B- grade in the report released today, unchanged from the ranking given last year.

Hart said it was encouraging to see New Zealand retailers making progress in tracing suppliers but there was still more to be made.

"It's really commendable when companies are making a concerted effort to trace their suppliers through each stage of production and are able to let the consumer know who is making their clothes, and under what conditions," Hart said.

"New Zealand has made great progress in the last year with seven companies publishing supplier lists, up from zero companies in 2017. However, many are yet to do this and stay on track with progress being made by the industry on a global scale."

Seven of 18 New Zealand companies representing 43 brands included in the report published lists of their suppliers over the past 12 months. These included Common Good, Icebreaker, Barkers, Freeset, Kathmandu, The Warehouse Group and Hallenstein Glasson Holdings.

Common Good was the only company to list its supplier list in entirety.

No company was found to be paying a living wage all the way down the supply chain, and just two companies were paying a living wage to workers in the final stage and input production facilities.

Kowtow, Icebreaker, Freeset and Common Good scored A gradings for their policies centred around worker empowerment.

"We're pleased to see some New Zealand companies becoming more aware of worker empowerment and intentionally considering how much their workers are being paid. It's a step in the right direction, but from this year's results, it is evident we still have a long way to go before we will see a major shift in the industry."