Sharna de Lacy
We used to invest in our clothes. The style, the quality of the garment construction and fabric were something we were willing to pay for. We spent thoughtfully on seasonal trends, considered the lifespan of our clothes, and how well they fit. The supply chain was local, and widespread unionisation provided producers with decent wages and working conditions.
Fast forward to today, and production been outsourced, but labour standards have not.
Big retailers like Forever 21 and UNIQLO have totally transformed the fashion landscape. Trends are conceived, manufactured and shipped at rapid speeds, and hit the shelves at rock-bottom prices. Players like Zara deliver new trend pieces as often as twice a week, with many items retailing for less than $AUD50.
Fast fashion is a multi-billion dollar business – and it’s able to churn out those big dollars by demanding swift production, where costs are cut by producing ever-thinner fabrics and cutting corners with flimsy stitching.
But in a market environment where consumers are spending less and buying more, it is those at the bottom of the supply chain that lose out – which means exploitation is the hidden surcharge incurred in every purchase we make.
The average garment worker is female, lives in Asia, earns below poverty line wages and is denied basic labour rights. She is likely to work in outrageously unsafe conditions, have poor access to healthcare and other essential services. She is likely to have had little education, and to have migrated from rural surrounds where rapid liberalisation polices have crushed local industries.
She is the face of a globalised economy hungry for cheap goods, and cheaper labour.
During the 1990s, anti-sweat shop sentiment was widespread, and held global brands like Nike to task for their exploitative practices, which bred outsourced sweatshops all over the globe. But while brands like Nike have been working to clean up their act, consumer apathy and increasing downward pressure on prices means in reality, little has changed.
Consumers were forced to confront this reality when on April 24, 2013 a factory collapse took the lives of more than 1,100 garment workers Dhaka, Bangladesh. The body count, and huge local protests that ensued, took this dark industry from the footnotes to the headlines.
But this gross failure to provide even basic OH&S standards has been a routine feature of factory life in Bangladesh for more than a decade – and the factory workforce is mostly comprised of women. Indeed, this largely female workforce receives below poverty-line wages, despite producing around 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports and brings in around $USD20 billion to the economy.
But there is change in the wind.
Although female garment workers’ low social status is readily exploited by a system largely operated and profited by men, they are far from passive victims. Last year, thousands of protesters joined in the streets to demand an increase in the minimum wage – and those protests resulted in the closure of hundreds of factories, and eventual wage increase to $USD66.25 per month.
Small ethical labels, with transparent supply chains and commitment to environmental standards and social responsibility, represent a rapidly-growing niche that is also doing its bit to shift societal attitudes towards ethical fashion.
Australian brands like Ginger & Smart create beautiful, well-crafted clothing and take the rights of their producers seriously. Other brands like The Social Studio and Nobody Denim are bringing production back on shore, and re-educating Aussie consumers about the value they place on their clothes. The rise of e-commerce has made it much easier for ‘small fries’ like this to enter the market and directly connect consumers with producers.
We need more alternatives like these, because the status quo is unsustainable and deeply unethical. But if ethical fashion is going to not only survive, but thrive, it needs fashion consumers to be willing to pay more.
So, next time you’re browsing your local mall, check the label. Check the fabric quality. Check the stitching. Then ask yourself, how much should this really cost?
Sharna is the Co-Founder of The Fabric Social, a social enterprise working exclusively with conflict-affected women. The Fabric Social work to transform one of the greatest causes of poverty: armed conflict. You can shop, donate, or get involved here.
Photo: The Social Studio