does ethical fashion matter?

does ethical fashion matter

Karen Miles loves to shop, but can fast fashion come with too high a price?

On the hunt for brain food, I came across the documentary The True Cost. The filmmaker Andrew Morgan had me at “Fashion is the second biggest polluter of our planet, after oil.” What?

Turns out, while the price of the clothes we wear has been going down ($7 T-shirts, anyone?), the workers who make them, our farmers and natural resources are experiencing an increasing cost.

Fast fashion relies on our desire to continually feed our thirst for something new and the idea that happiness comes from ‘stuff’. We’ve shifted from seasonal fashion to stores that receive new shipments twice weekly, some daily, in order to sell more product.

I’d presumed that the cost of clothing was dropping because of all the new brand entrants to the Australian market. I was wrong – clothing companies and their competition are demanding increasingly lower manufacturing costs and as a result governments in developing countries pay poverty wages to retain their business.

5 Fast Fashion Facts

  1. Fashion is a US$3 trillion industry.
  2. We’re purchasing more than 80 billion pieces of new clothing every year – that’s 400% more than we bought 20 years ago.
  3. In Australia, one third of our clothing donations are sold in charity stores, one third is exported to developing countries (destroying local trades) and the remaining third is sold as cleaning cloths or goes to landfill.
  4. Up to 77 million cotton farmers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide, herbicide and fertiliser poisoning, which causes loss of consciousness, seizures, cancer, birth defects and death.
  5. Chemicals from cotton farming are being detected in waterways, affecting the local ecology and families in developing countries.

So here’s the dilemma: I love fashion and I love cute kids’ clothing, but how and where can I shop ethically and sustainably? In search of the truth, I spoke with father of four and Director of The True Cost, Andrew Morgan, and local industry experts. Here’s what I found out.

There’s ‘minimum wage’ (poverty wage) and ‘living wage’
According to The Australian Fashion Report, many fashion labels require the payment of a legal ‘minimum wage’. Legal minimum wages keep workers and their families in poverty and force them into excessive overtime. Changemakers argue for a ‘living wage’ – a wage that actually meets a family’s basic needs of food, water, shelter, clothing, energy and transport, with a small amount left over for ‘luxuries’ like medicine.

does ethical fashion matter

Companies and manufacturers keep things hidden
Many clothing labels don’t know when their production is sub-contracted, making improvements harder to enforce. We need transparency in the ‘supplier chain’, so clothing companies are accountable for monitoring and knowing who produces their clothes.

Cheap fashion doesn’t affect company profit
When one clothing company offers a $12 skirt, their competitor then wants an $11 skirt. To achieve this, fashion companies demand cheaper production costs from their manufacturers. Clothing manufacturers, who can’t afford to lose business, then have less money to spend on paying decent wages. The use and polluting of our natural resources (water, land, air quality) is similarly not being factored in to the cost of production.

Cotton farming is toxic
Organic cotton isn’t a fanciful trend, like hipsters and their beards. Unlike conventional cotton, organic cotton means fewer chemical sprays, no genetic modifications and fewer chemicals absorbed into your body.

Can we really make a difference?
Andrew said yes. “Getting off the treadmill of cheap throw-away clothing has the potential to actually define your personal style. This is not about rejecting fashion or loving the things we wear less. I believe it’s about loving what fills our closet even more! Buying into better clothes, things we actually love and will wear and hold on to, is a richly rewarding experience and one that returns us to the essence of what true fashion is all about.”

“We must move away from clothing being made and marketed as a disposable good,” says Andrew. “It was Vivienne Westwood that famously said those simple yet beautiful words, ‘buy less, choose well, make it last’. This is about investing in beautiful wardrobes instead of endlessly buying into cheaply made, mass-marketed pieces that fall apart.”

Will I have limited clothing store choices?

  • The good news is Ethical Clothing Australia has accredited around 80 brands – view their list here
  • I also discovered behindthebarcode.org.au that grades Australian fashion companies according to 1) their actions in reducing the risk of slavery, child labour and labour rights violations, and 2) whether they’re paying their workers a living wage.
  • With the free Good on You app by Ethical Consumers Australia, you can check a brand’s rating, find ethical stores near you, plus send direct messages to brands to tell them whether they’re doing a good job or not.
  • Also look out for the internationally recognised Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) mark on your clothing, which ensures the organic status of textiles, and the Fairtrade Mark, which gives you an assurance that the materials have been sourced in line with Fairtrade Standards.

What if I can’t afford to pay more?
Turns out, if we just paid an extra 50 cents to $1 per garment, that would give workers a 10 to 50 cent rise per hour. “When you’re earning less than two dollars a day, this is a big rise in take home pay,” confirmed Oxfam’s Workers’ Rights Advisor, Harvey Purse.

does ethical fashion matter

Fairtrade Australia/New Zealand suggested that perhaps a better question could be ‘at what cost do my clothes come?’ When manufacturers purchase cotton outside the Fairtrade system, the purchase cost, in many cases, doesn’t cover farming costs. By spending just that little bit extra for your fashion, you’re ensuring that cotton farmers are part of a system where manufacturers pay a fair price for cotton and standards are set on environmental sustainability.

Can one person really make a difference when profit is king?
“One person will not change the fashion industry or force a company to change its operations, however, there are lots of ‘one persons’ out there,” said Sigrid McCarthy of Ethical Clothing Australia. “The more people questioning companies about their ethics and production processes, the more pressure these companies will feel to take positive action. Companies can’t ignore the risks often associated with unethical business practices, which can impact their brand reputation and in turn, profit.”

does ethical fashion matter

Loss of skin pigmentation is one of the many side effects of chemical poisoning used by textile factories.

Andrew firmly believes that the model of a profit-only system can and must come to an end. “We have to account for the earth’s resources and we must dignify the life and work of human beings around the world. On our own we cannot change the world, but time and time again throughout our history when people begin to open their eyes on an issue like this, change is never far behind.”

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This article was originally published as Fast Fashion in the Dec/Jan 2016 issue of CHILD Mags / Photography: Film stills from The True Cost