How to Buy Ethical Merino Wool Clothing

How to Buy Ethical Merino Wool Clothing

by Kyle Barraclough

Buying ethical Merino wool clothing - Do customers really care?
The social responsibility of making Merino wool clothing
How to verify a Merino wool brand makes their clothing ethically

Introduction

Making Merino wool clothing around the world comes with the challenge to do so without harming the environment, sheep and our fellow humans. Vigilance and partnerships with responsible companies across supply chains is required to assure our customers that their Merino wool shirt was produced ethically and sustainably. (For more information on sustainable Merino wool see our article here and for the ethical treatment of Merino wool sheep head over to our comprehensive Merino wool guide here.)

We asked Mark Jaeger, VP of Stakeholder Engagement at Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), to educate us on what is behind the certifications garment factories receive for compliance to third party standards.

Interview

Libertad

Merino wool clothing customers tend to be conscientious consumers. They are concerned about sustainability, animal welfare and human rights. However, regarding the human labor involved in fabric and garment manufacturing, often in less expensive countries, the view exists that despite less-than-ideal factory conditions the workers are, ‘just happy to have a job.’ Have you heard this sentiment and why should we think any differently?

A clothing factory in Havana, Cuba. Most Merino wool clothing is produced in Asia.

Mark Jaeger

So the apparel industry, coming from the United States perspective, was one of the earlier industries to globalize and to take their production offshore of the United States and then further away into Asia. Part of that was initially by the trade regime that was in place, quotas and duties tended to force production to be in the United States. But, it's a high labor content industry and as the barriers to trade came down, the opportunities to move your production to other countries and to achieve some economies in that move became apparent. So, a lot of companies moved their supply chains further from their marketplace, primarily if it was in the U.S. or North America. But, in the early days of that shift it became apparent that countries to where you were moving did not always have the infrastructure in place; the government regulations; and the ability to enforce those regulations to ensure that the laws on their books were protecting the workers and the workplaces.

There's a gap there and some industries realized that was not a good situation and steps were taken. For example, the apparel industry put together some programs that would work with responsible brands, buyers and retailers to set and enforce standards that might not otherwise be set and enforced in some of those countries. That's sort of the big picture of the trends that were going on over the last 20 years in this industry. And, I think it's shortsighted and cavalier to say that employees have a job, so they should be willing to accept unnecessary risk, or poor wages, or not get their benefits that the law requires in that region. I think responsible companies recognize that there's an obligation to the workers, and also to the shareholders & customers, that they take steps to treat employees with dignity.

Libertad

Apparel companies frequently move production from one country to the next in search of a few cents savings per garment. What can they do to ensure that safety standards are not compromised when they exert this downward pricing pressure?

Factory workers make ethical Merino wool clothing

Mark Jaeger

It's a fair question - Is it not just a race to the bottom in terms of worker protections in favor of lower priced garments? I think if you look at it from the other perspective, 'Who's placing the orders?' The buyers, the brands, the importers, particularly into the U S market. That's the first place where I think that obligation sits in terms of managing their supply chains to ensure that the workers are treated at a sufficient level that recognizes basic human rights. That's where programs like WRAP come in. Unfortunately, there are incidents, like Rana Plaza in Bangladesh a few years back, and that was a safety & engineering issue where a factory was in a multi-story building that it probably shouldn't have been in. There probably should have been inspections and applications of local codes to avoid that problem. The industry came together quickly after that incident and major programs were laid to bring up the quality and the safety of the buildings in Bangladesh in that case. So, I think there's still a primary obligation with the importers not to have that race to the bottom, but to have some basic lines drawn that you will operate in factories that respect basic and core human rights.

Libertad

The word "obligation" is an interesting word. You're not using a word like "policy," or "law." So, how is that obligation created and how is it enforced, or encouraged?

Mark Jaeger

Yeah, it's interesting. Really, this has come about over the last 20 years, and in most of that time, it's been a voluntary effort by responsible brands, buyers and importers to say that they're going to insist on certain levels of treatment and conduct. And that they're going to take steps to ensure that's happening in the locations that they source. It doesn't mean they won't move their production from one country to another country at some point. There are a lot of factors that go into where you source your supply chain. But, these more responsible importers, buyers & brands recognize that there's a lot at stake in addition to just how the employees are being treated in the factory they're sourcing from. There's their brand reputation. And if you're associated with an incident like Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, it's a very long time before you recover from that. The headlines are going to be devastating to your brand and to your reputation, and suddenly a couple of cents on a garment doesn't look such a great value.

Libertad

You bring up brands and being responsible. I'm a brand. I'm very small with very little buying power. But, I have been to both our Merino wool mill and the factory where they make and package the Merino wool shirts. Both factories are very clean. The workers look well treated on the surface and the factories look safe. But, I have no idea how to assess anything that's going on at either facility. What can a brand actually do if they don't have a big team and financial resources to make sure they are producing a product that's ethicall?

Mark Jaeger

That's a great question. Let's say you're a startup company, or a smaller company in a niche area. You don't have a lot of leverage. You probably don't have a lot of surplus resources to lift the living conditions in a factory. But, what you can do to support ethical production is to ask those factories what programs have they been qualified under, or certified for, and if that certification current. Is that program a good program? There are a number of programs, particularly in the apparel industry, that are proven; that have a quality reputation; and that can give you, as a buyer or importer, a comfort level that you're dealing with a factory that treats its employees according to the law and according to basic international and core human rights standards.

So, it's really difficult for someone that's not an engineer, for example, that does audits to factories, to walk in and say, 'Oh, I see a problem with the spacing on the line,' or, 'I don't think there's enough fire exits,' or, 'I don't think the aisles are wide enough here.' But, for programs like WRAP, we used accredited auditors. We have a robust audit protocol. We have a team of experts in our Arlington Virginia office that reviews these detailed audit reports. We insist on the reports being updated every year, so that the certification can be renewed. And you can go to the WRAP website and check on the certification status of a given factory. So, those are some of the things that you can do even if you're not a big player yet.

Libertad

Okay. That's what I can do. But, what can customers do? I could provide them with a certification logo on the product page next to the Merino wool shirt of interest and try to provide information on the subject of ethical production, but I don't sell a lot of clothing compared to big apparel companies like H&M and other fast fashion brands that have huge product lines. We've all been on those websites and, more often than not, there's not a word besides a general assurance that all of their clothing is produced in safe factories. How can a conscientious consumer really make sure they can trust info like that? Or, find the info in the first place if it's not readily available?

Mark Jaeger

Another trend over the last several years is that more and more companies like yourself are communicating directly to your consumers about your ethical practices; about your efforts in sustainability. And you're beginning to badge your labels with certifications and programs that are gaining recognition at the consumer level. So, for a number of years the WRAP program, for example, was more of a B2B certification. The importers, the wholesalers, the retailers were getting verification that the factories they were sourcing from were behaving ethically. But, we've seen more recently that sellers, particularly e-commerce companies, are putting the info up on their website and addressing the issue straight up, 'Here's, here's how we ensure that the goods we make were made ethically and responsibly.' 'Here's our stand on the environment and sustainability.' 'We may be a small company, but we're not missing the big picture here.' That communication is being sourced by consumers. So, I expect this trend will continue to build. Sometimes you can go into a store and pick up a label and you'll see three or four different certifications. Eventually, that could get confusing to the consumer. But, if you go back a few years, there were none. So, it's probably progress.

Libertad

For the consumers that want to get specific in their questions to brands, how do you suggest they educate themselves?

Mark Jaeger

They can take as deep a dive as they have time and interest to take. It might be a cursory look on your website to see, 'Oh, yeah. I see Libertad uses a program called WRAP. I see that it works on social compliance at the factory level. And they represent to me that their factories are certified. I accept that representation. I feel a little better about your product. I'm going to look up the WRAP website now, and I'm going to read what WRAP says about what it does and what its mission is.

WRAP certifies Merino wool shirt factories

And I'm going to do a little diligence and I'm going to learn.' WRAP welcomes that. Come to our website; see how we operate; and send us some questions. Customers can certainly dive way deep into WRAP materials. We have the pre-audit assessment documents that we provide factories. They're available to anybody that logs into our website. And you can see the depth that we go through to help a factory achieve a WRAP certification. It's not something that we just hand to them. It's a process and a continuous process.

Libertad

If you were talking to a customer that wanted to be more involved, is there anything you would add to what you said? What questions should they be asking of their chosen brands?

Mark Jaeger

Well, I think the first place for a customer to get information about your product is your website or your labels. If you communicate your approach on your product and/or website, and it's easy to find; that's a good start for a customer. And if they have a concern, for example, that you might be doing some sourcing in China, and they've heard that Chinese labor isn't treated fairly, or they have other issues or concerns; they can come to your website. They could see, for example, that you are working with factories that have a certification. It could be WRAP. It could be another scheme that's been recognized. That should give them a little better peace of mind that steps have been taken, and the sourcing is thoughtful. And they can certainly go down deeper and follow the links over to the WRAP website. They could verify that the factory is certified under the WRAP program. They could do the same with the other programs that are out there. Now, there is the potential that some factories will say they're of a certain status, but they're not. And, some of that comes down to you. To make sure that the certifications are in place before you represent that they're WRAP certified.

Libertad

Does anyone monitor the growth, or decline, of consumer concern in this area?

Mark Jaeger

This is a growing area of concern, and I don't like to generalize, but I'll do so a little bit here. Millennials seem to have a keener interest in these types of issues: transparent and sustainable supply chains. And within sustainability, it's not just the environment, but it's also social responsibility - how workers are treated in factories. It's not an objection to having global supply chains so much as it is having transparency and how those supply chains are operating. Obviously, they don't want to support a company if they're not treating their workers with dignity and respect.




Kyle Barraclough
Kyle Barraclough

Author

Founder, Libertad Apparel



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