In the so-called information age, it is remarkable how many of us put on the blinders when faced with a glistening, beautiful mega-store. Trotting down any city street on any particular day, I am faced with rows upon rows of stores that promise to make me beautiful, happy, stylish, sweet-smelling and hey, just a better person in general. When standing before these pristine glass megaliths, it is very easy to ignore where these products actually come from.
Now that I run a small ethical fashion company, I realise the environmental, economic and human decisions that have to be made for every square inch of fabric, when weighed against every cent of return that fabric might garner. The type and origin of the yarn has a huge impact, the way the fabric is dyed, who stitches the garment, how it is shipped, how it is marketed to an Australian audience – all of these factors add up – and more often than not, it isn’t pretty.
What I have learnt is that most garment workers earn around 25 cents an hour. There are between 100 and 200 million children working in sweatshops today, feeding a massively unregulated market place eager for increasingly cheaper fashion. The fact that this estimate has a 100 million-person wide gap goes to show how little we actually understand. 93% percent of Australian brands don’t know where their fabric is sourced, which makes exploitative practices highly likely. Companies that choose not to know choose to allow the exploitation to continue. In an apparently human-rights loving place like Australia, only 5% of clothing companies have a policy to ensure overseas workers receive a living wage. If the brands themselves don’t know or care, then what chance do we as consumers stand in tracing the impact of a piece of clothing?
I’m not going to bother arguing that earning a below-living wage equates to modern day slavery, because I think this has been pretty well established and better argued by smarter people than me. So rather than trust that the big brands will come good, I have some tips for eradicating slavery from your wardrobe. Here goes:
NO MORE MEGABRANDS
I know this is hard to hear because we all love those super-cheap Swedish trend items - and we were giddy with excitement when they finally came to Australia. But H&M are one of the worst offenders when it comes to fast fashion crimes. In 2010, it was revealed that one of H&M’s New York stores was cutting up and dumping unsold jackets and sweaters in the middle of snowpocalypse (one of the coldest, nastiest New York winters on record). Also in 2010, the Swedish super-brand was caught red handed fraudulently selling “organic” cotton. Soon after, 21 garment workers perished in a factory fire in Bangladesh, outsourced and contracted by H&M.
H&M are obviously not alone. The only way these brands break through the market place and turn into billion dollar companies is by cutting as many corners as possible to maintain their cutthroat margins. But in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, consumers have become more demanding of transparency and human decency. Even a small percentage of customers walking away can make a huge impact, because these are consumer driven organisations. Companies are never too big to fail, and the only way they are going to change is if we hit them where it hurts – reputation and revenue.
DRESS LIKE THE EMPIRE RECORDS CAST
The good part about ditching the mega-brands is that, at least in Australia, we are blessed with a multitude of alternatives. Vintage and op-shopping remain a viable alternative for the Australian inner-city semi-poor student aged hipsters, but this might not always be the case.
In the United States, fast fashion companies have managed to bring their prices down to below op-shop levels, putting many second hand stores out of business. On top of this, only 20 percent of donated clothes are sold in op-shops. People buy much more clothing than they used to, particularly shoddily made fast fashion items. There simply isn’t enough demand or resources for these mountains of clothes to be resold.
So, every time you purchase from an op-shop, that’s one item fewer that is being pumped into the world. It is a handful of dollars being steered away from megabrands and their nasty practices. Your purchasing power is political power.
STOP BEING SO STINGY
We can’t entirely blame the stores for their irresponsible practices; the consumer also has a lot to answer for.
We are so inexplicably proud of our own stinginess. “I got it on sale” or “it was only $5” is nothing to brag about. Getting an item insanely cheap does not make you a genius that outsmarted the industry. It just makes you another cog in the fast fashion machine. How do you think that t-shirt got down to $5? The answer is poorer quality fabric, poorer quality stitching, poorer quality design, and absolutely horrendous labour rights standards. Tell yourself this mantra in the mirror every morning: a t-shirt should never never never cost $5.
If something takes up more of your wallet space, then inevitably it will take up less of your cupboard space. You can decide to spend $200 a month on 65 flimsy t-shirts that will disintegrate in a matter of months – or instead you can buy two or three ethical fashion items that have an amazing story and will last you ten years. Most importantly, your new ethical duds will make you feel like Wonder Woman when you wear them, because you have the warm and fuzzy inner-knowledge that you are making the choice to reject fashion’s most cringe worthy trend: human rights abuses.
LESS IS MORE
On average, women only wear 20-30% of their wardrobe. In the 1990’s Cher from Clueless taught us that best practice is to have a mountain of clothes you barely like, in a wardrobe that you contribute to constantly. We all know the deep belly-pain of looking into a cavernous wardrobe of poorly made clothes and thinking “I hate everything I own”. For this, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Apart from labour practices that can’t be described as anything but slavery, the environmental impact of this amount of clothing production is profound. Here are some staggering stats from Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline’s exposé on fast fashion:
World fibre production is now 82 million tons, which requires 145 million tons of coal and somewhere between 5 – 7.6 trillion litres of water to produce.
Large clothing chains produce as much as a half a billion garments per year. UNIQLO makes 600,000 items of clothing a year. Zara processes 1 million garments per day. As of 2009, Forever 21 was ordering 100 million garments per year.
In the U.S., almost 11 billion kg of textile waste is generated annually. Of that, just 15% is recovered for reuse or recycling.
The scale of this is pretty unfathomable, but reflects the change in attitude we have had as consumers. Clothing is now produced by the megaton with the intention of being thrown away after only a handful of wears. This attitude towards our wardrobes didn’t exist a generation ago. Fast fashion has soared ahead in both destructive production and sales. The only way to detox is to just – walk - away.
People who buy ethical are no longer just dreadlocked potheads protesting outside the Nike store. You can join the likes of Stella McCartney and Natalie Portman on the ethical fashion wave. Once you switch to ethical, when someone says “OMG I love your top!” you will actually have a cool story to share.
Like my Naja undies, which not only look amazing, but a percentage of each purchase goes towards training women with no income in Colombia to sew. Once they have completed the training, they get hired to sew for the company. Or my Dorsu t-shirt, made in an ethical workshop set up by the organization in Cambodia, with totally transparent labour practices. Or my Sewing New Futures scarf, the proceeds of which go to training women of the traditional prostitution caste of India into alternative careers. Or my Conscious Step socks, which contribute to a variety of causes in line with the Millennium Development Goals. Or anything sold on Thread Harvest, a new Aussie website specifically curated for buying alternatives. These things are not hard to find, particularly in Australia where we are spoiled for choice in the social enterprise space. You only need to cough up a little more dough to start feeling really good about yourself.
Positive reinforcement works. The more you brag, the more you reaffirm in your own mind the choices you have made. The more you brag, the easier it becomes to walk past an H&M or a Zara store, and just roll your eyes at all the fools racing in. If only they knew.
Fi 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.