What is considered to be ethical and what isn’t? Where is the line? I have taken it upon myself to do some digging on your behalf and look more closely into one of Canadas’ most successful retailers; Aritzia. Many people that I know shop at Aritzia and believe they are getting a good quality item for the high mark up they pay. Is this really the case? Also on the production side, do they have proof for what they claim on their website about corporate social responsibility? Let’s take a closer look into their fibre of production (pun intended).
The first thing I wanted to look at were their quarterly reports. If sustainability is truly at the forefront of their business practises, they would have to have updates on their progress to maintain ethical practices in the factories they use right? However, when looking into their latest quarterly review I was able to see what a typical investor would like to see including the growth of their company and projections for next quarter etc. They even have a full audit report on the company, that being of financial interest. Yes these are all important factors needed to assess a company, but not exactly what I was looking for.
On the side of this site there was a search menu to help navigate the different categories of information available to the onlooker. One of these categories stated “Social Responsibility”. Imagine my excitement at seeing those words! Maybe Aritzia is more transparent than I thought? Wrong. Once I clicked on the Social Responsibility tab in this report I was taken to the Aritzia website where they state all of the ways they practice sustainability within their company. It is also important to note that this Social Responsibility tab was the only tab in this report that did not have up-to-date information, or any factual content for that matter. There were an assortment of baseless claims made with zero evidence to back them up. Disappointing to say the least.
I would also like to note that there is a small paragraph in this report that states,
“We also maintain a formalized quality assurance program whereby we inspect our manufacturers’ factories to ensure quality control. We engage independent expert service providers to conduct factory audits for compliance with local laws and regulations and global standards.”(pg. 8-9)
This is all great in theory. However upon digging for any sort of proof of these actions, there is nothing for the public to go on. There are no public records of these audits meaning we have no idea how often they are happening or if they are even taking place at all. It's their word against ours. Just another baseless claim.
While looking on Aritzia's website, you may also notice they have a list of all of the countries they manufacture within. Missing from this list is Bangladesh. When doing a bit of exploring within their stores, you can pick up a piece of clothing and find that it is in fact made in Bangladesh (in some cases) meaning this either has not been updated in a long time or they simply choose not to divulge that information online in fear of people asking questions. Neither situation would be a good one.
When taking a closer look at this list, you can see many names of developing countries, in which the pay and workers rights are lacking. This isn’t to say that their can’t be ethical production within these countries, however the likelihood of this ringing true at the scale at which Aritzia produces is highly unlikely. Within each country, there are many factories used to undergo their clothing production. Without any real proof of audits or visits by a third party company, there is no way Aritzia can state that they are supporting ethical production within these factories, simply because they have no proof of doing so. The scale of their production is like that of many fast fashion companies -robust- meaning they use MANY factories to achieve their inventory requirements. This makes it very difficult to track the social practices within each individual factory. The shear number of factories is so large and widespread that, unless this is a top priority within the company, it simply isn't trackable to the extent needed to be considered sustainable.
*Side note* A large issue around traceability happens with having vast numbers of factories used in a supply chain. Though the factories themselves may be safe and manageable, work can be easily outsourced by these factories to sub-contractors. This is done in order to achieve a higher volume of output within a shorter period of time. This helps the factories keep costs down so companies like Aritzia will continue to work with them. The conditions within these subcontracted locations are often unmonitored and uncontrolled. This is when child labor and explorations comes heavily into play. Factories can choose for forgo reporting these subcontracts and often times the corporations working with them don't know it's happening. This is part of why frequent audits and monitoring within factories is so important. Now back to the topic at hand.
Transparency is key. It is not enough for a company to simply state that they do something without being able to back it up with some hard evidence. In this day and age, chances are that exploitation is occuring in some form in these factories due to lack of supervision and differing standards within each country/ area.
I decided to focus mainly on China when looking at Aritzia's factories and production, so it is important to keep in mind that long list of manufacturers and suppliers posted on their website I showed above. My observations are just the tip of the iceberg and represent what is most easily obtained my the average person searching their company.
Another interesting coincidence I came across while looking up factories of production within China was the name of a certain factory. In 2016 H&M made an effort to increase their transparency by posting a complete list of the Chinese factories they use to the public. This list can be found here. When comparing some of the factories that H&M uses to the small sample open to the public by Aritzia, there are several that both companies produce their clothing in. Aritzia's sample list can be found here. When thinking about H&M prices it’s easy to ask the question, “how are the garment workers making any money when the price is so low?”. Aritzia is using some of the same factories, which pay the same amount of money to their workers, yet their markup is considerably higher. The fabrics may be different and slightly more expensive, however that does not justify their prices. When the same factories of the very essence of fast fashion (H&M) are being used to produce their clothing, it brings the question forward, “what makes Aritzia any different?”. We do need to understand that factories are going to overlap within the retail industry. However, I wonder what truly warrants the difference in price between these two companies when they are paying the same (extremely low) labour costs to manufacture certain items of clothing.
Within the Supply Chain Risk Report released by No Child For Sale created by World Vision in 2016, Aritzia is directly mentioned. They reported that Aritzia has limited to no public evidence in the areas of auditing, grievance/ remedy, and stand-alone disclosure (pg. 9). They have a posted code of conduct making the category of supplier code of conduct green. Their public commitment is the page on their website previously mentioned. The limited recognition of auditing mentioned in their reports accounts for the yellow within that category. But as you can plainly see, there is no evidence to backup their claims.
The information I have found is just the surface of what could be found. As a consumer, I don’t have access to certain supply chain sites or info from the company itself. Aritzia could be working towards an ethical supply chain behind closed doors, who knows? But that’s just it, if it’s not being brought forward to the public what are the chances that it is actually happening? Don't you think they would be telling people if they were going the extra mile? Sustainability is not at the centre of their company and probably never will be. All we need to see is transparency, good or bad, to show that they are working towards something and to backup the claims they are advertising both in their quarterly reports and on their website (which happen to be the same thing). It shouldn’t have to be our job to push for these things, but right now their really is no other option is there?