Most New Zealand fashion retailers are doing a good job of looking after the people who make their clothes, but some brands have work to do.

Department store Farmers was among those who got a poor ranking in this year's Ethical Fashion report by relief and development groups Tearfund and Baptist World Aid Australia.

Farmers is one of 10 New Zealand retailers to receive an F or D ranking for supply chain transparency, worker rights and policies to prevent child and forced labour. Others include Baby City, Trelise Cooper, World and Merric.

One hundred and thirty companies were graded by Tearfund on their ethical supply and manufacturing practices.

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Three of the top five graded companies were from New Zealand, with seven local retailers achieving A grades in this year's report, compared with five a year earlier.

One myth about the gradings is that companies which did not directly engage with the research automatically received a low ranking. In fact, some companies which did not engage still received reasonably high scores, such as Karen Walker, which got a B grade, and Barkers which received a C+.

In the past year, said Tearfund, about 38 per cent of companies had improved their overall grading.

Tearfund education and advocacy manager Claire Hart said many brands had progressed in the areas of gender equality, transparency, responsible purchasing and practices to combat child and forced labour.

"The fashion industry is only moving in one direction when it comes to this, it is moving towards visibility, transparency and care of workers, and companies that aren't on that journey ... are going to be outliers very soon," Hart said.

She said it was wrong to assume that more expensive garments were associated with better work practices. "The companies that sit in lower grades, you've got everyone from high-end designers through to companies that sell very cheap clothing," she said.

"You have companies like Cotton On that grade in the A range and they have quite a cheap price point ... any type of company, size, price point, can create good systems to protect workers."

Retail and brand specialist Jill Brinsdon said consumers today expected more from the companies they did business with, but many people weren't as concerned about ethics in the clothing industry as they were in others such as food.

"Fashion is unfortunately still quite disposable," Brinsdon said.

The F grades

Farmers chief financial officer Michael Power said he believed the company received its low grade because it chose not to take part in the survey. Trelise Cooper also said this was the reason behind her F grading.

"Farmers operates all of its business in an ethical manner and is committed to improving social, ethical and environmental standards throughout its supply chain and in all aspects of its operations," Power said.

But Hart said: "Farmers ... choose not to engage in the research and they also make very minimal public disclosures, which means we are unable to find out any information about what is going on in their supply chains."

A worker in a garment factory in Narayanganj, near Dhaka, in Bangladesh. Photo / Getty Images
A worker in a garment factory in Narayanganj, near Dhaka, in Bangladesh. Photo / Getty Images

The Herald has approached 3 Wise Men, Baby City and Merric, which all received a F grading, for comment. It also contacted World, Hunting & Fishing NZ and Kate Sylvester, which received D grades, for comment.

Kate Sylvester was unable to answer the Herald's questions but said it had chosen not to participate in the research and therefore got a "poor score".

"Whilst this survey goes towards creating a positive, broad brushstrokes framework for responsible practice, we feel it has limitations for small, boutique fashion businesses."

Kate Sylvester said it was instead working on Mindful Fashion New Zealand, an initiative it co-founded to support the local garment industry.

A representative of T&T said the retailer did not participate in the research conducted by Tearfund and that it was satisfied its suppliers operated in an ethical manner and in accordance with stricter European standards.

"T&T supports the objective of ethical supply chains, but does not agree with the form of the Tearfund survey which has allocated a negative grade without any evidence that T&T is not operating an ethical supply chain," it said.

"T&T is extremely proud of its business practices and the contribution it has made in New Zealand for many decades."

Rising among the ranks

Nature Baby was recognised as the highest performing new company to be part of the research.

Co-founder Georgia Faull said the company was proud of the result. "Being one of the smallest companies in the survey and being scored highly reflects what we have been doing and focusing on for the last 20 years.

New Zealand's largest retailer, The Warehouse, scored a B- grade this year, up from last year's C rating.

Tania Benyon, chief executive office of sourcing at The Warehouse, said the retailer was pleased its efforts had been recognised. "Over the past 12 months, we have joined new worker welfare initiatives like Nirapon in Bangladesh, HER Project in Bangladesh, and the Responsible Workplace and Recruitment programme in Malaysia," Benyon said.

Whilst this survey goes towards creating a positive, broad brushstrokes framework for responsible practice, we feel it has limitations for small, boutique fashion businesses.

Karen Walker, which received a B grade, said it chose not to participate in the research because it believed it could use its resources in a more effective way.

"By not participating in the survey, we've been given a grade by Tearfund solely based on what information was available online at the time of grading. The grade is therefore Tearfund's evaluation of information online and is not a complete representation of our ethical standards or our social responsibility programme."

Barkers, which again scored C+ in this year's survey, said the grading did not reflect its efforts to be an ethical retailer and it had recently put out its first ever annual transparency report.

Outdoor clothing retailer Macpac which received a B- grading said in the past year it had increased the percentage of Bluesign approved fabrics it used in its products and had joined the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which gives it access to tools that can help measure the impact of our products and practices.

Cotton On Group general manager Alice Polglase said the retail company was happy with the A grade it received.

"We really hope that this provides customers with confidence when they decide to purchase a product... knowing that there is a commitment to doing good behind our good value products," Polglase said.

Clothing retailer Kowtow, which received among the highest of gradings for its ethical practices, said it was proud of its A+ grade.

"As designers, we're responsible for the entire lifetime of a garment, and that starts with the conditions of how it was made," Kowtow founder and director Gosia Piatek said.

"Our entire collection is made without putting worker safety or the environment at risk, which goes to show the future of fashion is ethical and sustainable."

An earlier version of this story wrongly stated T&T was approached for comment. The company has since provided a response, which is now included in the story.