This just in: You can look fashionable as hell while supporting the environment and the workers who made your stylish new outfit.
While we all love being on trend, the true cost of updating our wardrobes weekly with unethical clothing or ‘fast fashion’ is uglier than last season’s fluffy mules.
An IBISWorld report found Australia’s fast-fashion sector grew 19.5% over 5 years to $AUS1.8 billion in 2017-18. That’s a staggering amount of support fuelling the unethical manufacturing of clothing.
The good news is you can do your part to put an end to unethical fashion without sacrificing style.
We reached out to Angela Bell, National Manager of Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA), and Bernadette Payne, personal stylist and founder of That’s My Style, to get some insights on the impacts of unethical clothing.
The Negative Impact of Unethical Clothing
Angela explains, “The negative impacts of unethical clothing are expansive, but for those working in the industry it can mean anything from underpayments to unsafe working conditions, modern slavery, sexual harassment, and human trafficking.”
If the name ‘unethical’ clothing isn’t enough to turn you away from the sales, these damaging effects should be.
Harm to the Environment
Fast fashion is all about getting new products into the store quickly and at affordable prices to encourage people to buy more. The goal is to get consumers to buy as many products as possible, as quickly as possible.
We’re no longer dressing for Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. Instead of just two seasons in a year, the ever-changing trends and new products available in store every week mean we’re pressured to dress for 52 ‘micro-seasons’ a year.
“Fast fashion brands will continue to produce cheap clothing that doesn’t last,” Bernadette states. “This means consumers will have to keep buying new trends and treat their clothes as disposable. So much ends up in landfill.”
Research by YouGov shows 3 in 10 Aussies have thrown away clothing after wearing it just once, and 4 in 10 Aussies have thrown unwanted clothing in the bin.
Unfortunately, this mass production and disposal of garments means an increase in toxic chemicals and greenhouse gas emissions, textile waste, and water pollution. In fact, textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water in the world (beaten only by agriculture).
“An excessive quantity of water is used for dyeing and finishing yarns and fabrics,” says Bernadette. “Then this toxic waste from textile factories is dumped in waterways.”
And it’s not just Mother Nature who is copping the short straw when it comes to unethical clothing.
Low Wages for Workers
Sure, you may have bought that new dress for $50, but it’s likely the person who made it was paid peanuts in comparison to the price tag.
Unethical clothing means low wages for the people sweating it out to make it (literally – sweatshops are no secret, after all). And by low, we mean not enough to cover their basic needs.
In the Baptist World Aid 2018 Ethical Fashion Report, only 5% of graded Australian apparel companies were able to prove they were paying all their workers a living wage. Only 12% could prove they were paying some of their workers a living wage, and a whopping 70% of the industry hasn’t taken action to improve worker wages at all.
Health and Safety Risks for Workers
Workers aren’t just being paid insufficient wages, though. They’re also facing health and safety threats every day in poor working conditions.
Following the 2013 factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, 206 fashion brands (including 12 from Australia) signed a commitment to create a Bangladeshi clothing industry with reasonable health and safety measures.
While this is a positive step toward a safer environment for workers, it seems some brands are in no rush to update their cheaply made Second- and Third-World apparel production units as per the commitment.
“There needs to be clear ethical standards and transparency from brands and manufacturers,” Berandette states. “The Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh had a huge impact on me personally and led me to leave my job in mass manufacturing. I felt money was coming before lives.”
Angela adds: “The Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013, in which 1,134 garment workers died and thousands more were injured following a building collapse is the most shocking example of poor standards.”
One of the key factors that characterises fashion as unethical is the use of child labour. In 2000-2012, the International Labour Office estimated that 170 million children were engaged in child labour, with many of them working within the fashion supply chain making textiles and garments “to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond”.
While the number of children engaged in child labour has improved in recent years, the exploitation of children is still a huge issue in the fast-fashion industry.
How to Shop Ethically
Making the transition to sustainable, ecological, and ethical clothing makes for guilt-free shopping. It also helps you build a timeless wardrobe of long-lasting, quality pieces that can be worn over and over.
And don’t be turned off by the conception that buying ethical clothing will cost you more. Angela explains this is a common myth.
“If you consider the cost per wear, clothes made ethically will work out to be cheaper in the long run – sadly, most of us have bought a cheap item of clothing that hasn’t lasted beyond the first few washes,” she says. “Investing in higher-quality garments also helps us shift the way we look at our clothes – to place more value on them, care for them properly and mend them so they continue to be part of our wardrobe for many years to come!”
Choose Eco-Friendly Fabrics
Not all fabrics are made equal. In fact, some can be pretty nasty on the environment (we’re looking at you, polyurethane). Skip the synthetics and buy clothing made of natural fibres such as:
- Organic cotton
- Organic wool
- Flax plant (linen)
These fabrics are more sustainable than some others, and they can break down at the end of their life. While they may cost a little more upfront, they’ll last much longer than cheap, synthetic clothing that needs replacing after a handful of wears and washes.
No, we don’t mean you have to buy your clothes at Louis Vuitton or Chanel. Believe it or not, there are some affordable independent designers who make their clothing by hand.
Keep an eye out for local designers offering handmade and custom-made garments to know you’re steering clear of sweatshops. Bernadette recommends investing in pieces that will last longer, and asking yourself if it’s a need or a want before making a purchase.
Buy Second-Hand Clothes
Vintage is in. So, why not make the most of the trend and head to your nearest second-hand store next time you want a new look?
Buying pre-owned clothes at a fraction of their original price doesn’t just save you money. It also saves the need to use materials, water, and chemicals to make new clothes, and it reduces textile waste. That’s a win for your wallet, your street cred, and the environment.
Support Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) Accredited Brands
“Ethical fashion is important because our lives aren’t the only ones that matter. It is our social and environmental responsibility,” Bernadette states.
Angela agrees: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how and where a product has been made when you’re making a purchase. Making informed decisions and doing your research is very important. And the more consumers ask these questions, the more likely businesses are to adopt ethical practices.”
Do your research on a fashion brand before you support it with a sale. A good rule of thumb for determining whether a brand is ethical or not is if it’s been accredited by Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA).
If a brand’s textile, clothing, and footwear products have the ECA trademark, this means these products were made in Australia and all of the workers involved in its production received fair wages and decent conditions.
“Our accreditation is focused on ensuring that local manufacturing workers, many of whom are homeworkers or outworkers, are being paid appropriately, receiving all their legal minimum entitlements and working in safe conditions – and to be accredited, the entire supply chain is audited. As manufacturing supply chains are complex, ECA works collaboratively with businesses and unions to ensure that all these legal obligations are met,” explains Angela.
“More broadly, many of the businesses accredited with Ethical Clothing Australia are looking at how clothing can be made with better consideration of the social and environmental impacts involved in production. This can include looking at the raw materials used and way they’re processed, and how the garment is manufactured, by whom and in which conditions and also the full-cycle of the garment.”
Check out the official list of ECA-accredited brands to shop ethical threads for the whole family.
To keep your favourite clothes preserved for years to come, check out our guide to storing clothes and fabric.