Megan O’Malley is my one friend who is also passionate about changing the fashion industry (I have alluded to her in a previous article). She is a very clever young lady currently doing cool things in the sustainable textile industry. One of her roles is as Community Manager at JUST, a website that wants to empower people to make more conscious decision when shopping. They have recently created what Megan calls “a platform that is like a Wikipedia for (fashion) brands.” We met at the beach one summer’s afternoon and had a lovely chat about this platform and the fashion industry in general. We were also joined by a flock of seagulls trying to steal Megan’s chips. Something I found highly entertaining- Megan not so much.
JUST featured in my last article, as one of the websites where shoppers could find out information about brands in regards to ethics and sustainability. The portal allows shoppers to search by brand, providing them with thoroughly researched information about a range of areas including labour conditions, environmental practices and community involvement. The aim of JUST is to arm consumers with all the information that is available on the internet so they “can make their own decisions- it is empowering the shopper to shop sustainably and ethically on their own terms,” says Megan.
As you read last week, there are already a lot of websites that do some sort of brand ranking based on their sustainability efforts and ethical procedures, but what makes JUST different to these sorts of websites? JUST covers both big and small brands, something a lot of these sites are lacking. “It’s great to research the small brands that are doing amazing things,” Megan says, “We can get people into it and empower them to become the shoppers they always knew they could be!”
What also makes this site so cool is the fact that JUST are working towards encouraging engagement and allowing people to contribute to the website (hence the Wikipedia comparison). They want comments from shoppers, contact from brands and even contact from people within the supply chain to “give us the real information as to what’s going on,” explains Megan.
So it will always be like a Wikipedia style of website, constantly being updated and reviewed? “Yeah, for example, this week we are updating H&M and Zara,” explains Megan, “We have Google alerts to tell us when new information is coming in and once the sustainability report comes out- that means reading through them again!”
“There are so many problems to address, that it is a problem within itself. They are just big freaking problems.”
Having worked as part of the research team last year with JUST, I know just how much work goes into gathering this information. “We read through everything that we can find (company reports and third party articles written about the brand) and we just present it as how it is told- unless we have to interpret things that are badly written!” says Megan. “You just have to work with what you’ve got,” she continues, “People aren’t going to sit there and read through a whole sustainability report and then go ‘Ok, yeah, now I can shop with this brand,’ so that’s why we do that for you- and it takes forever!”
But just how open are brands with the information they publish? Is such information hard to find? Megan explains that the amount of information on brands varies greatly. “One of our brands had literally no articles on its supply chain- zero, zilch. But then you have other brands that have so many articles on them- good and bad.”
And when there is a lot of information, a lot of it isn’t relevant to the supply chain. “You just have to sift through the waffle…there are a lot of sustainability reports and information on the corporate side of sustainability, but not on the supply chain side. And that’s kind of sad,” Megan says. However, Megan continues by saying she “was surprised at some brands and how much information they will share, because some of it is quite bad,” she says, “That impresses me and makes me feel like their information is legitimate and they are addressing it (the sustainable and ethical issues) and working towards it (being more sustainable and ethical).”
“…some of these brands are worth the same amount as small countries… they have a responsibility and they need to get their shit together!.”
Well at the end of the day, we want transparency, right? We want to know what is going on behind the scenes- who and what is affected by our need to consume. “Exactly!,” says Megan, “Because nothing is perfect in life. I’m sure even the most ethical brands have issues, but it is about acknowledging them and addressing them.”
According to Megan, there is no one big challenge in the garment industry, “There are so many problems to address, that it is a problem within itself. They are just big freaking problems.” Referring to the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 (the worst ever industrial accident in the garment industry, killing 1134 people) and the fact that there have been more since, she asks “How is this still happening?”
So how can businesses address these problems? Although redesigning supply chain processes of a big company would be a massive effort, it always seems to be a very long term goal and there is no sense of urgency. All the usual excuses are given- it takes a lot of time, it costs a lot of money, etc. But Megan points out that “some of these brands are worth the same amount as small countries… they have a responsibility and they need to get their shit together!.” Well said!
During her research, Megan was also shocked to find out that 17% of one brand’s factories had serious violations happening in them. Now that may not seem like a big deal, but this was a big brand which has a lot of factories. Image all the people working there and the impact that has on them. Businesses wouldn’t get away with something like that in Australia, so why do we let them get away with it in other countries? Especially when are the end consumer of what they are producing.
Businesses aren’t the only ones that bear the responsibility of creating change. Consumers can do their bit too. ‘But I am just one person, what can I do?’ I hear you say. Well, a lot actually. You have a lot more power than you realise. If you stop buying $5 t-shirts in protest against the conditions of the factory workers, then businesses will have to listen if they want to keep getting you money. I mean, if you really think about it, a t-shirt for $5? You might think it’s awesome, but as Megan points out, “Someone is being exploited in that supply chain, some kind of environmental impact is happening that’s not great.”
These problems in the textile industry are extensive and it is a massive challenge to try and change the process. But that all sounds rather negative and not a good way to end the story! “Empower the people!” Megan says. And that’s you. You are the people who can influence change.