Christmas is just around the corner, and Oxfam has released their annual Naughty or Nice List. Established in 2013, after the Rana Plaza factory collapse, Oxfam directs consumers towards brands whom, according to their own media release, “have made a real commitment to paying a living wage.”
As a conscientious consumer, I don’t want to fill my shopping cart with Christmas gifts made by modern slaves. As a writer who has frequented the sustainable fashion scene for several years, I feel immediately sceptical over most of the companies who made the nice list. Even by Oxfam’s own reporting, none of these brands pays living wages. To settle the matter once and for all, I decided to investigate what it takes to make the nice list.
According to Oxfam Australia Labour Rights Lead, Sarah Rogan, “Brands on Oxfam’s nice list – including Kmart, Cotton On, Bonds, Gorman and David Jones – have made commitments that included a clear and appropriate definition of a living wage, and at least two or three key milestones and timelines to reach those significant steps.”
In my critical interpretation, this means: highly-profitable brands with big marketing budgets can pledge to change their ways, within a specific time frame, and receive free PR in exchange for their words. And they don’t even have to follow through.
Let’s consider the example of H&M, a Swedish retail label worth an estimated US$29.7 billion dollars. H&M repeatedly feature on Oxfam’s nice list, because they pledged to pay garment workers a living wage within five years. That was in 2013, after the Rana Plaza tragedy. Fast-forward six years to 2019, and H&M still don’t pay living wages. Instead, they have changed their policy, revised their pledge and set new targets, ticking Oxfam’s “key milestones and timelines” targets to warrant the “nice” label.
Theoretically, I understand that it takes time to make changes within big businesses. I also understand the logic behind Oxfam pursuing this list as a way to separate those who have made some effort, from those who have done nothing. And I’m sure Oxfam feel just like a weary parent who has to praise the most beige efforts, hoping it will set the landscape for improved behaviours sometime in the future. So truly, I empathise with the complexities of the bigger picture. But the reality is that this list is misleading and ultimately damaging to supply chain workers. Why? At the risk of sounding repetitive, none of Oxfam’s nice list pays living wages.
Oxfam’s own media release ,that accompanies their naughty or nice list, emphasises the necessity of a living wage, yet they fail to publicly recognise those who already pay it:
"A living wage means enough money is earned in a standard week to cover basic essentials including food, housing, healthcare, clothing, transport, education and some money for unexpected events."
"A living wage is not a luxury, but is a minimum that all working people should be paid if they are to escape the cycle of poverty," Ms Rogan said.
Across Australia, and indeed the world, incredible small businesses are working hard to create products with minimal harm to people or the planet. They don’t have big budgets to spend on marketing or PR, yet they’re most worthy of the free publicity that Oxfam’s naughty or nice list provides.
These brands who pay living wages are the select few who receive an A+ rating in the ethical fashion report. They don’t talk about creating social change or set targets in the future because they already do the right thing now. These are the brands that deserve to be on everyone's list this Christmas:
*Mighty Good Group ceased production earlier this year, though their products are still available online in limited supplies.
Outside of these A+ scoring companies, I encourage every one of you to seek gifts from Fairtrade certified companies, as well as local artisans and creators. There are incredibly talented individuals making children’s toys, clothing, homewares and accessories right on your doorstep. They’re at your local market, selling wares online, and they do it all without causing harm to others. Shopping for good-quality secondhand gifts is also a completely reasonable and ethical form of giving, as are experience-based gifts.
While I understand the complex and intense desire to give gifts at Christmas time, and I appreciate it is a habit ingrained and reinforced over a lifetime: it doesn’t have to be this way. Rather than wandering through shopping centres guided by a warped perception of what’s naughty or nice, think twice. Support the brands who are doing the right thing now.