OPINION: The other day as my niece was ferreting around our library, she came across the Felix Donnelly book from 1978, Big Boys Don’t Cry.

Donnelly was a Roman Catholic priest who, in a huge departure from the status quo, came out with views around human sexuality that strongly departed from the Catholic sentiment at the time.

The book itself is a broad-ranging work looking at societal values of the day and where Donnelly felt they had gone wrong. It’s interesting reading, especially for those who have perhaps forgotten just how far we have come in terms of acceptance and inclusion in only 40 or so years.

I was thinking about Donnelly’s book, or at least the title of it, when I was brought to tears recently by a report by Tearfund, an organisation that sets out to reduce the incidence and impact of social and environmental ills caused by the apparel industry.

By way of background, the rag trade is something I have a long involvement with. , a manufacturing company I am involved with, is now the largest apparel manufacturer in New Zealand.

And to give an indication of just how the topic has been subverted by those with ulterior motives, I actually have to point out that “manufactured in New Zealand” means that, you know, someone actually makes the stuff right here in Aotearoa. One would have thought it wasn’t a term that allowed for much confusion, but it seems that assumption is wildly inaccurate.

Anyway, Tearfund annually puts out a survey to rank the various brands available in New Zealand for their social and environmental impact. All the usual suspects are there – names that you know and love and shop at daily.

These are big, generally multinational brands that have entire teams to tick boxes, embark on multitudinous certification programmes and generally do lots of things that, while making themselves and their customers feel good, do little to actually improve social and environmental outcomes of their business.

Now I could be seen as being a little miffed that Cactus Outdoor, my own business that is one of the last remaining manufacturers of workwear and outdoor equipment in New Zealand, has never been contacted by Tearfund for our view.

I could be slightly pent-up that we have around 100 skilled technicians masking apparel at Albion, all of whom have to enjoy the very stringent labour laws that we have in New Zealand (and, for the record, there are few of those in Vietnam and Bangladesh where the overwhelming majority of respondents to the Tearfund survey source their garments).

Or I could be a confused by these same companies who are jumping up and down about their environmental sustainability even though they chose to manufacture in low-cost countries at least in part because they’re not held to the same environmental standards.

I could even be grumpy that many of the certifications these companies rely upon can be bought by all-comers on the internet, regardless of what the true situation is

All of those would be very valid reasons to be annoyed. But I’m more annoyed by what the Tearfund report does.

By giving companies that produce fast fashion an imprimatur of credibility, they’re telling the public it’s OK to continue to buy clothes that wear out in five minutes and end up going to landfill because, through some magical formula, those suppliers have suddenly made it OK from a social and environmental perspective.

Tearfund, in giving a seal of approval to companies whose very business models are predicated on perpetuating fast fashion, actually makes things worse. For the environment (more carbon-spewing transportation needs) and for society (more people working in marginal conditions overseas).

Now, I can just hear the howls of protest from people commenting that I must be advocating we all wear sackcloth. I’m not doing anything of the sort. There are awesome brands that are committed to manufacturing in New Zealand still, Anna Rodewijk, Artstori, Nisa and Untouched World among them.

All of those brands make stylish garments right here that are designed to last more than one showing – and none of them got a look-in when the Tearfund report was being written.

Instead, some of the top handful of scores given in the Tearfund report went to companies who make flimsy clothes in low-cost and low-environmental standard countries.

Frankly, I’d question the ethics of an organisation that is focused on giving those companies a platform from which to justify their business model. It really is enough to make a guy cry.

– Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He’ll even admit that sometimes he cries.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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