“Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak,” stylist Rachel Zoe once quipped, explaining how fashion can be an effective tool for self-expression.
Fashion has been celebrated as an extension of individual personalities, and it can help you bring forth your own unique message to the world. But for all that’s good about fashion, there is a dark side too.
The dark side of fashion
Almost three-quarters of the world’s clothing is produced in developing countries.
The frightening fact is that a large percentage of our clothes are made in sweatshops, under conditions of extreme discomfort and sometimes physical danger, by workers paid well below the living wage.
Garment workers only receive about 0.5 – 4% of the final retail price. Clothing is a big business, and competition is continually driving wages down as designers scramble to be affordable to price-sensitive customers. When you spot ridiculously cheap clothing, there’s a reason behind its cheap value – exploitation.
In Bangladesh, where 80% of the economy depends on the garment industry, wages in 2006 were only 40% of what they were a decade before. Meanwhile, the cost of essential commodities in Bangladesh – like rice and water – have risen by 200% so it’s virtually impossible for workers to support their families.
Top designers such as Stella McCartney and Carla Zampatti may not need to worry about keeping costs down, and can freely pride themselves in ethical practices, but for the average brand, ethical practices are seen to get in the way of profit.
The reality of sweatshops
A Norwegian reality show sent three fashion bloggers for a month-long stint to a Cambodian sweatshop. The show, Sweatshop Deadly Fashion, the bloggers saw first-hand the harsh realities that over 500,000 sweatshop workers face, working six long, hard days a week for a monthly income of just $100. On top of the meager income, the bloggers also witnessed the dangerous working conditions and mass faintings that occur due to unsafe temperatures or toxic fumes.
Cambodia certainly isn’t the worst offender though, and when you consider the fact that cameras were actually allowed access into this factory, it tells us that in reality, these sweatshop workers who tell their heart-breaking stories probably have it better than the majority of clothing labourers.
Labour organisations are continually reporting demeaning and oppressive working conditions sweatshop workers face all over the world.
In some of the latest reports, workers were reported to:
- work extremely long hours – sometimes 16 hours a day with very short, limited breaks;
- working overtime regularly – without overtime pay;
- offered poor job security – companies can relocate factories to entirely different countries without giving a fair amount of notice to workers;
- be exposed to unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, including extreme temperatures;
- be far too young (child labour is commonplace in the garment industry), and;
- be forced to work against their will.
Tips to shop ethically
Luckily, fashion doesn’t have to be this way. Avoiding the dark side and focusing your intentions on ethical fashion will eventually force these horrible sweatshops to close down.
Here are the little things you can do to try and ensure you don’t support these unethical practices.
1. Check the price tag
The first point of call will always be the price tag. If you see a T-shirt that costs just $3, know that it means someone would have been paid a whole lot less than $3 to make it.
2. Look for accreditation
Look for ethical accreditation with an Ethical Clothing Australia logo. Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) works to combat the issues of outworkers by providing ethical accreditation for Australian-made clothing.
Other logos to look for include the Fairtrade logo, which certifies an ethical supply chain for cotton, and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) logo, which certifies organic textiles and ethical labour conditions in textile manufacturing. In terms of animal welfare, check out Choose Cruelty Free Australia.
Before you buy, consider these questions:
- Does the clothing company have an ethical sourcing code?
- If so, are you confident that their code is comprehensive enough to cover important considerations, such as a fair living wage, no forced or child labour, freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, safe and hygienic working conditions, acceptable working hours, no discrimination, and regular employment?
- Does the company audit its factories, and if so, how often?
- Are the audits independent, unannounced, and are the results made public?
- Is the company part of a multi-stakeholder ethical scheme?
If you’re unable to find information for the above questions, or unhappy with the answers, chances are the clothing was produced in a sweatshop. Vote with your wallet and take your precious dollars elsewhere to be spent on an item of clothing that fits with your ethics.
4. Be informed
Learn how your favourite brands stack up so you can make sure you’re not supporting the dark side of fashion.
The Australian Ethical Fashion Guide is a free download at the bottom of this page, rates popular brands on environment, labour, and animal welfare. There’s reviews of H&M, Zara, Topshop, Cotton On, David Jones, Sportsgirl, and more.
5. Drive change
If everyone freely expressed their desire for more ethically produced clothing, the demand will change supply over time. Every time you buy earrings for $1, a T-shirt for $3, or pants for $5, you are feeding the cheap fast-fashion demand, and hurting thousands of workers who produced those items under unfair conditions. If every person reduced their cheap purchases and instead turned their attention to higher end, quality clothing, the need for sweatshops to pump out cheap clothing would be reduced.
You should feel proud of your purchases, not guilty. Here are some final tips for shopping ethically:
- Buy secondhand for staples such as jeans, coats, bags, and shoes.
- Budget for high-quality fashion items that last, and reduce your cheap fast-fashion purchases that don’t last anyway.
- Support small business, and choose local designer brands.
- Take a sewing class and make your own fast fashion.
- Learn to make basic patch-ups or find a good tailor so you can keep pieces for a long time.
- Check websites like Etsy for vintage and handmade items where profits go directly to the maker.
The key to ending the unethical global practices of the fashion industry is to avoid interacting with and supporting them. While the idea of ethical shopping may sound expensive and difficult, it’s really not. Not all cheap fashion is unethical, and not all ethical fashion is pricey. Fill out the form below to download our free Ethical Fashion Guide and shop guilt-free!