Like many people, when I heard about the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 and read about clashes in Cambodia between badly paid workers and security forces earlier this year, I became even more concerned about the impacts my fashion choices were having on the people making the clothes.
But like everyone, the time I can dedicate to researching every piece of clothing in my wardrobe is somewhat limited! So I started thinking about the most efficient way to find the relevant information and weigh up the issues that mattered to me.
Here’s the method I’ve come to use – hopefully it will work for you as well.
What are the issues?
Decent wages, a safe work environment, time outside of work for family and friends: these are the things I know I want for the people that make my clothes. But what specific issues should I be looking out for when I start examining my choices? Obviously, items manufactured in Australia are going to have different risks linked to them than those made in third world countries.
When you start searching online for labour issues you’re really opening a can of worms. Uzbeki cotton, sandblasting of denim, industry versus NGO multi-stakeholder initiatives – the issues are complex and ever evolving.
A good place to get a well-researched and up-to-date overview of labour rights and fashion is Baptist World Aid’s Australian Fashion Report from 2013. The production stages involved in clothing are notoriously complicated, and this will help you look at the issues which interest you in more detail.
The report is also part of a ratings scheme to test your clothes for their adherence to labour rights (more on this below).
Get what you pay for
A simple starting point is the rule of thumb that very cheap items are probably too good to be true. Although a lot of luxury labels have a bad reputation to match their big price tags, generally speaking, it’s bargain clothing like that sold in supermarkets hasn’t been produced with enough of a focus on good labour conditions.
As highlighted previously in Otter (What’s under your shirt?) consumer demand for cheap clothing partially drives the exploitation of the people who make those items. This means I should be choosing well-designed clothes made with beautiful fabric that will last more than one season, rather than buying cheap fashion that I won’t want to wear after six months.
How do my favourite labels stack up?
The next step is to take a closer look at my favourite designers and labels. The questions I’m trying to answer are: Where are my clothes being made? What evidence is available to tell me whether the supply chains are free from forced or child labour? Do they have agreements in place with their suppliers to ensure the payment of a living wage and the provision of a safe workplace?
The quickest way to do this is to check some trusted ethical ratings sites to see if someone’s already done the hard work for me.
Ratings, ratings, ratings
The Australian Fashion Report released by Baptist World Aid in 2013, Rank a Brand and Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) are excellent resources to find out how my favourite brands stack up. Each offers a different approach to assessing brands.
The Australian Fashion Report grades companies against their policies on workers’ rights, as well as traceability and transparency in their supply chains. It also provides some excellent background information on global issues such as the use of forced labour in harvesting of cotton in Uzbekistan and forced and child labour in the production of clothing in countries such as China and Bangladesh. The report is thoroughly researched by a respected NGO using information made publicly available by the companies, as well as through direct contact with them.
The brands examined are mainly larger Australian clothing companies (such as Pacific Brands, who produce multiple labels) and some international brands. After reading the assessment for Lululemon, who receive an overall rating of C-, I’ll be reconsidering where I buy my sport bras and yoga gear in future.
Rank a Brand is not limited to fashion, and its ranking system considers environmental performance and climate change efforts on top of labour rights. It scores brands on the basis of information that is publicly available on a brand’s website. If a brand does not publish this information it will score poorly. The approach encourages companies to be transparent with consumers about how their products are made.
The site is easy to use and assesses a good range of denim, which is often problematic because of the safety issues associated with sandblasting. I am pleased to see that my Freitag bag is a great ethical choice – but Rank a Brand doesn’t cover the smaller Australian labels that I like to buy.
Ethical Clothing Australia accredits Australian made clothing and was established in response to concerns about the exploitation of homeworkers. ECA doesn’t produce rankings, but accreditation means that the workers involved in the production of clothes, including sub-contractors and outworkers, are paid according to legal standards. The ECA site tells me that clothes made in Australia by labels that I like, such as Cue, Bianca Spender and Jets have been produced without using exploited labour.
Small labels require some detective work
For labels that aren’t ranked or accredited by any of the available tools my next step is to approach them directly. A lot of smaller Australian fashion designers, such as one of my favourites, Leona Edmiston, outsource production to China to remain competitive.
It’s important to remember that buying clothes which are made in countries such as China and Bangladesh is not necessarily a bad choice: the Australian Fashion Report highlights the fact that the clothing industry in third world countries provides important investment, job opportunities and skills. A number of Australian companies have signed up to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh which provides for an independent assessment of working conditions.
A quick check of the websites of some smaller Australian designers indicates that providing publicly available information about ethical and sustainable production is not common. This I find disappointing–I agree with Rank a Brand that companies should be transparent with their customers about their labour rights and environmental performance.
Bassike, which I quite often buy, uses organic cotton for many of their clothes – however their website does not contain any additional information about the polices or processes behind their production.
Now I’m on my own in this quest for truth! A direct approach is needed, so I email another small Aussie label, Leona Edmiston. After a few days, a response turns up in my inbox. They tell me that the factories involved in offshore production of their clothes are monitored by SGS, a company that audits production conditions as well as pay rates and living quarters within the factories.
Although I’m happy to hear it, and satisfied that I’ve found another answer in my search for clothing that is fair on the workers who make it, I’m genuinely surprised that the company wouldn’t share this good news story with consumers. It would certainly have made my assessment of the brand easier. I decide to tell Leona Edmiston that I’m after ethical values as well as attractive clothes, and although an audit report isn’t the most fashionable item on a website, it’s one that would encourage others like me to shop with the label and would cut down on the effort needed to research a brand.
So, there’s plenty of tools out there to get a snapshot of your favourite brand’s performance – and although small brands are often not included, it’s nice to know that their close connection with the customer means they will often get back to you on a request on information. As more people show an interest, labels will hopefully get the hint and make information on their labour practices available online – and in doing so make it easier for consumers with good intentions but limited time to make better choices.
Top: Ricky Romero (cc)
Bottom: Owen Lin (cc)