When you’re trying on a cute pair of designer shorts, a dark, dank sweatshop is probably the furthest thing from your mind. But sweatshops are closer and more important than you think.
Can you really justify buying fashion that is made at the expense of another?
In 1980, Anna’s parents migrated from Vietnam to Australia. With limited English, Anna’s mother knew enough to apply for a job as a “machinist” — someone who could sew. After a few months, she finally found a job in Marrickville, working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in a 4 x 4 room with nine other women. For her efforts in making up to 840 items of clothing per week she took home $126. Anna was 12 at the time and helped her parents with outsourced work on the weekends to help make ends meet.
Anna’s story isn’t unusual. Browsing through some of the other stories of outworkers at Fair Wear Australia is enough to make your heart break. But what is staggering is that these aren’t the stories of sweatshop workers in some foreign developing country — these are tales from our own backyard, right here in Australia.
Award wages, superannuation, holiday leave and workers compensation are rights many Australians take for granted. But in the Australian clothing industry, many workers are routinely denied these rights. According the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, between 50 and 70 per cent of clothing made in Australia is outsourced, usually to migrant women working at home or in backyard sweatshops.
In Australia, hundreds of thousands of people — most recent arrivals with limited English skills — are being exploited. People are working for as little as $3 an hour. These “outworkers” get no superannuation, no holiday pay, no insurance. They are under the pressure of constant deadlines and are often working in poor conditions — isolated, bullied and exhausted.
If supporting these industries doesn’t sit well with you then it’s time to make a more informed choice about the clothes you wear. Sure, they’re going to cost more. But they’ll be better made, more environmentally sustainable and you’ll be confident in the knowledge that your purchases are part of a bigger picture where equality and fair pay are the norm.
What is ethical fashion?
According to Carlie Ballard of Indigo Bazaar, a leading curator and retailer of ethical fashion in Australia, ethical fashion indicates “an approach to the design, sourcing, manufacture of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimising impact on the environment.”
Put simply, ethical fashion is fashion that reduces poverty, creates a sustainable livelihood and minimises the environmental impact of clothes production.
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“Ethical and sustainable fashion is a movement that will be eventually be the norm,” says Carli. “It allows people to work a normal work week and earn a living wage which can sustain their needs. It is where people making our clothes have their basic human rights met. A place where there is no child labour, no forced labour and a place where health and safety regulations are followed.”
Ethical fashion is about caring about the story behind the clothes that we buy. “Ask yourself who made it. Whether they earned a decent wage. Were they of a legal age to work. Was the impact on the environment minimised as much as possible,” says Carlie.
Ethical and sustainable fashion doesn’t just start at the manufacturing facility, either. “It starts as a seed in a cotton field right through to the shopping bag you buy your purchase in. Conventional cotton farming has blood on its hands with as many as 200,000 cotton farmers committing suicide due to pesticide debt and many more who die or are terminally affected by the poisons associated with conventional cotton farming,” explains Carlie.
Where can I find ethical products?
Unfortunately, “Australian-made” does not always mean ethically made.
According to Ethical Clothing Australia, the Australian fashion and clothing industry operates with as little regard for basic laws and standards as its overseas rivals. Home-based workers in Australia are paid as little as three dollars an hour and do not receive entitlements such as superannuation or annual leave.
Buying clothes with an Ethical Clothing Australia trademark is a great place to start as it means the item was made in Australia and everyone involved in its production received, as a minimum, the legal rates of pay and conditions required by Australian law.
Stores such as Indigo Bazaar are also a great starting point for clothes, accessories, stationery and gifts. “Ethical fashion today is stylish and easily competing on price and trend,” says Carlie. “It ticks all the boxes. People do have the purchasing power to make a positive difference and the more people who buy the better and more available it will become.”