It's all in the details

How some Canadian-owned clothiers are covering up their labour practices.

Accountability and sustainability may still be big industry buzzwords, but Canadian-owned clothing retailers don't seem to be paying attention. Indeed, most Canuck companies downright cover up when it comes to shedding public light on their labour practices, according to the Ethical Trading Action Group's second annual Transparency Report Card, released on Dec. 7. The human-rights advocate compared 30 fashion chains and brands operating in the country, and only one Canadian-owned company–Mountain Equipment Co-op–managed to crack the Top 10 of companies that do report their labour practices transparently. International names such as Levi Strauss and Gap Inc. rated highly on reporting governance and risk management, labour standards, stakeholder engagement, management, and supply-chain auditing and reporting, while the chart's bottom half is almost entirely Canadian. Eight Canucks, including Boutique Jacob, Forzani and Le Château, scored big fat zeros.

That's partly because many Canadian retailers are small and privately held, and have little experience reporting anything, let alone something as touchy as labour and workplace conditions. However, five of the companies near the bottom of the list are publicly traded and should be reporting more to their shareholders, says Kevin Thomas, a spokesperson for the group.

Hopefully, they don't report more because there's nothing untoward to report, but it could be that these companies think they are just too small to garner activist attention or to wield much influence. Major international brands have faced significant public pressure and media exposés, which have led them to make a more determined effort to communicate with the public on labour rights issues, says Thomas.

Mountain Equipment Co-op is one notable Canadian exception. It released its first-ever accountability report in 2006: an extensive document that explores everything from its involvement with the Fair Labor Association to analyzing working conditions at its factories to its effect on the environment. Such initiative is sadly lacking by most of its peers, but Thomas believes Canadian reporting standards should soon change. There is a demand from both customers and investors for assurances that Canadian companies are meeting basic labour standards in the production of their goods, so Canadian companies will have to drop the excuses and catch up on this issue, says Thomas. Turns out someone is watching after all.