Our story about the mislabelling of clothing produced by ‘Made in New Zealand’ brand WORLD has prompted a renewed conversation on the aspirations – and limits – of so-called ethical fashion. So what can consumers do to ensure the people who made their clothes are treated fairly?
It wasn’t until recently that I started to ask ‘who made my clothes?’. As a kid, my mum hand-knitted matching jumpers and slippers for me, made from wool that was grown and spun on a local farm. As a teenager, she entertained my fashion designer ambitions by helping me construct a boned corset and princess skirt from highlighter orange silk – fabric origin unknown – for my formal, which I can assure you was incredibly tasteful but which I unfortunately can’t find any photo evidence of right now. As a late teen in the early 2000s, I summoned my modest spending power to walk into chain stores and buy very fashionable ‘pieces’ like extra-flare jeans with contrast stitching, their fabric and production origins as obscured from me as my chunky skate shoes under said jeans. It wasn’t until an embarrassing number of years later, after the novelty of being able to buy designer ‘inspired’ items for a fraction of the price wore off, that I really started to ask ‘who made my clothes?’.
Whether it’s the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse of 2013, in which over 1,100 people were killed, the Fashion Revolution movement which arose to commemorate that tragedy, or the fact that influencers are being photographed in eco-ethical Patagonia tees almost as frequently as they’re snapped next to fiddle leaf figs in artisanal planters, there does seem to be a cultural shift towards wanting to know the origins of our clothes.
Which is fantastic, because fast fashion has ravaged the planet and the lives of the people who make it. The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, responsible for countless environmental disasters. For example, the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake, doesn’t exist anymore, because the water of the rivers that fed it was redirected to irrigate cotton farms for the fashion industry. The fashion industry is also responsible for countless human rights atrocities, from devastating incidents like the Rana Plaza collapse, to pesticide and insecticide poisoning of the farmers who grow conventional cotton, to the discolouration and pollution of waterways from dyeing fabrics.
We, as consumers, have a lot to answer for too. We consume 400% more clothing than we did 20 years ago, and in Australia, where I live now, we dispose of 6,000kg of fashion and textiles waste every 10 minutes. Where are my extra-flare jeans (that, typically, are fashionable again) now? Somewhere in a rubbish dump I imagine.
‘Who made my clothes?’ is a hard question to answer. The fashion industry supply chain, from seed to retail floor, is incredibly complex, and it is almost impossible for brands to be perfect throughout this supply chain, or for consumers to shop perfectly as a result.
The ‘made in’ label forms part of this answer, but perhaps not in the way most people think. As a result of production moving offshore, local fashion industries, like those in New Zealand and Australia, are suffering. Buying locally made fashion pieces is important because it helps to guarantee the preservation of local skills, local investment in technology, and local jobs. If we stop shopping locally, there arguably won’t be a local fashion industry to preserve quite soon. In the ‘60s in Australia, 25% of workers were employed in manufacturing roles. That figure had declined to under 10% by 2014.
But local production does not guarantee fair employment for the people who sew our clothes (and when we’re talking about ‘made in’ we’re generally only talking about the cut-make-trim, or CMT, portion of the supply chain), even in countries like New Zealand and Australia. As Australian Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said last year, “There are many overseas and migrant female workers in this sector who can be vulnerable if they are not fully aware of their rights or reluctant to complain, so it’s important we are proactive about checking they are receiving their full entitlements.”
What should you be looking for if you want to guarantee the workers who sew your clothes are being treated fairly? Look for labels that have accreditation from trusted and independent auditing bodies like Fairtrade and, in Australia, Ethical Clothing Australia, which checks the supply chains of their accredited labels to ensure fair treatment of workers.
The cut-make-sew portion of the fashion supply chain is only one part of this problem. The environmental impact of the fashion industry cannot be understated, and it starts with the crops clothing is made from. Conventional cotton, which is used to make a lot of the world’s fashion items from tees to jeans and beyond, is considered the ‘dirtiest crop in the world’, because it takes up 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, but uses 16% of the world’s pesticides. This has an obvious environmental impact, but it also has a human impact too, as the farmers who tend to these crops are poisoned by this heavy use of chemicals.
What should you be looking for if you want to avoid fabrics with this kind of origin story? Look for labels using sustainable fabrics, which include certified organic cotton, hemp, and Lenzing Modal, and for labels with sustainable accreditations, including the Global Organic Textile Standard, or GOTS, which certifies that the entire supply chain of a garment, from seed to finished product, is free from harmful chemicals.
It is nearly impossible for a label to be perfect, but some do come pretty close. Vege Threads, for example, is a small, independent Australian label which makes everyday wardrobe staples like tees, turtlenecks and slip dresses. Vege Threads is all made from GOTS-certified organic cotton, fairly in Ethical Clothing Australia-accredited facilities and locally in Australia.
If Vege Threads is an example of what a small fashion label can do, then Patagonia shows what is possible for a large clothing company with a complex global supply chain. Patagonia’s mission statement is to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire solutions to the environmental crisis”. They do this throughout their supply chain, including instituting the Traceable Down standard to ensure there is no live-plucking or force-feeding on the farms they source the down for their jackets. They also use certified organic or recycled cotton for all of their cotton products after deciding that “traditionally-grown cotton was sufficiently evil that we, as a company, couldn’t use any at all”.
Because waste is one of the biggest problems in the fashion industry, Patagonia focuses on extending the life of its products. “The durability of a product turns out to be one of the most important elements of a product’s environmental footprint,” says Patagonia exec Rick Ridgeway, “so if a product can last for years – and, in the case of a jacket, maybe a decade or more – then the overall footprint of that product on the planet goes way down.” Patagonia encourages customers to bring old items into its Worn Wear facilities for repair, extending the life of the garment instead of sending it to landfill.
It’s a lot to take in. What should we customers do when we’re standing in a store mulling over whether to buy, for example, that striped strawberry-applique tee with confusing labelling? Pick a battle. Let your personal values drive what you look for in your clothing, whether that be local production, fair trade certifications, sustainable fabrics, or all of the above (which isn’t impossible, just a little limiting). Also, buy better quality and don’t throw clothes out after a few wears. If I still had them, I’d probably be wearing those extra-flare jeans today.
Courtney Sanders is a freelance writer and the co-founder of Well Made Clothes, a digital marketplace which provides information about, and the ability to shop, fashion labels that meet specific ethical values.
The Spinoff’s business section is enabled by our friends at Kiwibank. Kiwibank backs small to medium businesses, social enterprises and Kiwis who innovate to make good things happen.