What Not to Wear: Shopping Ethically in the Era of Fast Fashion

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fast fashion

Words || Belinda Ramsay 

Have you ever stopped to think about who sewed together the shirt you’re wearing right now? Or whether the person who plucked the buds of cotton from the plant was even an adult? Whether it’s the cotton woven into our clothing or the raw materials collected to create our accessories, we as consumers are too often the beneficiaries of forced labour. In a world of fast fashion and the ever-present, Insta-famous #ootd (outfit of the day), it can be hard to keep up-to-date with the latest trends, let alone ensure that the clothing we’re buying is free from exploitation. So what can be done?

Sunday, April 24th was ‘Fashion Revolution Day’ – to commemorate the 1134 deaths in the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka in 2013, which served as a visible and confronting reminder of how the clothes we enjoy are made. Since the tragedy, 190 brands signed onto the Bangladesh Accord to improve safety and conditions for workers in the local garment industry. However, despite the appearance of improvement, many companies remain vague as to the details of their supply chains, with ambiguous claims they endorse ‘eco-friendly’ production and show ‘care for their workers’. Fashion Revolution’s #whomademyclothes aims to encourage consumers to demand manufacturers take transparent steps toward ensuring that all our clothes are sourced ethically, sustainably, and free from exploitation of workers. It does this alongside other organisational campaigns, such as VGen’s #endchildlabour and International Labour Organisation’s ‘Youth in Action Against Child Labour’ movements,

In conjunction with ‘Fashion Revolution Day’, the Baptist World Aid released their annual series of industry reports – ‘Behind the Barcode’ – which seek to empower consumers to purchase ethically and, by doing so, encourage companies to ensure the workers in their supply chains are free from exploitation, forced labour and child labour. The reports work by grading more than 300 global and domestic fashion brands from A to F on various ethical standards – with nine brands, including university student favourites ‘General Pants’, ‘Dangerfield’ and ‘Lorna Jane’, receiving an F-grade due to their lack of transparency as to where they source their clothes from.

After reading through the Australian Fashion Report (the major report on ‘Behind the Barcode’), I was surprised to find that despite 77 per cent of companies knowing who their suppliers were at the final stage of production, at a raw materials level, only 5 per cent were aware of all of their suppliers. This means that while a company might be good at ensuring their garments are made by workers who are employed in decent conditions at a supplier level, they can’t ensure that the materials they use come from similar conditions. This presents an enormous challenge for the fashion industry, for as long as inputs and raw materials sit outside the purview of companies, the worst forms of worker rights abuse (including forced and child labour) can continue to remain prevalent.

In considering the lack of transparency and difficulty of tracing some of Australia’s biggest brands – what can be done by us, as consumers, to counter the effects of fast fashion?

Every time you buy a new item of clothing, you’re also contributing to the huge amounts of resources and work that goes into it. For example, the water consumption of one cotton t-shirt is 2,700 litres, which is the same amount of water an average person drinks over the course of 900 days. Therefore, one solution to reducing your environmental and social footprint is buying second-hand. By purchasing vintage or used clothing, you can save your money, op-shop ‘til you drop, and find unique items that make you look and feel ethi-cool in the process.

Take the time to look at the care instructions on the labels on your existing clothes. If you wash and treat your clothes right, you can get a lot more wear out of them and wind up consuming considerably less. Similarly, if you do decide to buy new clothes, you should consider the longevity of your purchase and aim to find well-made, form-fitting items that you’ll still want to wear in a few years’ time.

Another alternative to buying new clothes is to channel your inner-Pinterest blogger and do it yourself. In learning basic sewing skills, you can create better-fitting clothes that reflect your personal style, or reinvent your existing wardrobe by mending damaged clothes and upcycling old items to create different looks. Not only will you look great, you’ll feel like a winning contestant on ‘Project Runway’ – because nothing feels better than responding to a compliment on your killer outfit by saying ‘Oh this? I made it myself.’

You can also make better purchasing decisions using ethical apps – such as Ethical Consumers Australia’s ‘Good On You’ – which has ratings for almost 1000 fashion and accessory brands in Australia, and allows you to send a message to your favourite brands urging them to do better or congratulating them.

Lastly, to reduce your carbon footprint, as well as allow another ethically-savvy shopper to purchase it, and in turn increase the lifespan of your garment. Shopping ethically is all about being aware of, and aiming to reduce, your consumption patterns; so in undertaking these little steps, as well as understanding more about the processes behind the brands you’re buying, you can make a real difference to the environmental and social impact of your purchases.

According to the International Labour Organisation, the fashion industry generates over a trillion dollars of export revenue and provides millions of job opportunities for workers, predominantly from low and middle income countries. Therefore, while the fashion industry has great potential to be a catalyst for positive change in the lives of some of the world’s poorest people, it all depends on what products and processes we as consumers choose to purchase and accept.

So the next time you’re shopping for that perfect pair of jeans, or that last minute festival outfit, dress to impress in clothing that is ethically-made, sustainably-produced, and bursting with good vibes for your planet and your fellow human beings. In the words of iconic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, ‘buy less, choose well, and make it last’ – your wallet and the world will thank you for it.