Retailers pushed for more disclosure on supply chains as Bangladesh garment factory disaster anniversary nears

Canadian clothing companies are making some progress in offering more disclosure about where their products are made, but more work is needed, a report says.

Examination of 4 Canadian clothing sellers shows different policies on disclosing supply chains

A woman is lifted out of the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed 1,129 people in 2013. Clothes bound for Canada were made in the factory. (Kevin Frayer/AP)

Canadian clothing companies are making some progress in offering more disclosure about where their products are made, but more work is needed, a major report says.

Toronto-based labour rights group Maquila Solidarity Network was one of many authors of a report Thursday that looked at 72 major retailers from around their world, to see what improvements they have made in both improving their supply chains and disclosing as much as they can about it.

The report, Follow The Thread, found that 17 major clothiers had agreed to sign the group's "transparency pledge" to disclose information identifying the factories that produce their goods, along with other information such as the number of workers and list of products. And many more have made improvements in recent years, even if they fell short of formally signing the pledge.

The pledge makes it easier for watchdogs to follow up and monitor conditions on the ground in places like Dhaka, Bangladesh, the site of the Rana Plaza factory that collapsed on April 24, 2013, killing more than 1,100 workers.

Garments bound for Canada were being made in that factory, but it wasn't immediately clear how many and for who since companies were lax about reporting their supply chains at the time.

Details only emerged when aid workers scrambled over the wreckage and found labels for Canadian name brands, Maquila policy analyst Bob Jeffcott told CBC News in an interview Wednesday.

"There is a growing trend since then," he said. "There's momentum towards transparency in the garment industry."

Among many others around the world, the report looked at four Canadian garment makers — Mountain Equipment Co-op, Hudson's Bay Company, Loblaw, and Canadian Tire — and found a mixed bag in terms of transparency.

HBC discloses information such as the address, and number of workers at some — but not all — of its factories, Jeffcott said, and Loblaw, the owner of Joe Fresh, now discloses the names of the factories and the countries they manufacture in, but not the actual addresses themselves, which makes it hard for watchdog groups to keep an eye on them.

MEC, meanwhile is "very close to the standards that we're proposing as the bottom line" in terms of supply chain disclosure, Jeffcott said.

Canadian Tire, however, stood out on the downside as it has not agreed to disclose any information about factory locations or any other location at this time. 

"They do monitor for violations in their supply chain but they won't give information on which factories they're actually using," Jeffcott said. "They're telling us that we should trust them."

For its part, the retail chain says it is involved in numerous other initiatives aimed at keeping a tight rein on its supply chain, to monitor any abuses. "Through our Supplier Code of Business Conduct we clearly outline our expectations for ethical business dealings and aim to ensure that our values are not only understood, but shared by the vendors with whom we work around the globe," Canadian Tire told CBC News in a statement.  

"We leverage third party world-class auditing firms to monitor factory performance and progress to ensure consistent behaviours and values."

But that's not enough, labour groups say. Ken Neumann, Canadian director of the United Steelworkers, says "we know the Canadian Tire brands such as Sportchek and Mark's Work Wearhouse sells goods from 67 different factories in Bangladesh alone, but they don't publicly report which garment factories they use."

"That means human rights groups can't independently verify if these factories are safe and how they are treating their workers," he said.

"Canadian consumers want Canadian retailers to ensure a minimum level of safety in factories to stop fashion killings from ever happening again."