It’s an industry that has much to answer for. Beyond the inevitable environmental degradation, there is a human cost to the rag trade that many of us would rather forget. While the likes of Rivers and Coles are laughing all the way to the bank, there are families that have literally been destroyed because prices are down, says editor-at-large Lauren Zwaans.

“Down, down, prices are down!” You know the Coles jingle, even if you don’t want to. And we’ve all seen those hideous Rivers ads too, spruiking $10 t-shirts of questionable quality.

Right now the Rivers site has $3 singlets for sale. $3! Surely in the minds of most this begs the question ‘how?’ If the singlet costs $3 how is Rivers still in business?

The answer is simple: because Rivers pays its overseas workers in countries like Bangladesh just $3 a day, according to a recent report on the ABC’s Four Corners.

Meanwhile, the workers face intolerable pressure to meet output targets set by the factories.

It is truly heartbreaking reading and hearing their stories. One woman said she made so little money she could only afford to return home to visit her son once a year, while at the Rosita factory, which made clothes for Coles until 2012, workers are paid just 22 cents per hour. The Institute of Global Labour and Human Rights alleges workers at that factory were beaten and some 300 fired when they asked about their rights.

If the reports are anything to go by, it’s clear there is much that is hidden from Western consumers who shop in the oft-beautifully merchandised retail environments at home. However, one thing is clear: when buying our $3 t-shirts we’re supporting a class of working poor, while at the same time companies like Rivers, Coles, Target, Cotton On, Forever New, Kmart, Big W and the like make astounding profits off the back of this cheap labour.

Still, the reality is that it’s hard to buy ethically and it’s even harder to buy Australian made.

Conscientious consumption often comes with a hefty price tag and some of my favourite chain stores of choice like Witchery and Country Road seem to stock entirely overseas made product.

It isn’t cheap product, but it is mass-produced and it’s naïve to think that simply because a company charges more for its garments, the workers will automatically be paid more and work in better conditions.

Still, the aforementioned companies have a lot to answer for.

“If the reports are anything to go by, it’s clear there is much that is hidden from Western consumers who shop in the oft-beautifully merchandised retail environments at home.”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for some months and missed the horror that was the April 24 collapse of a textiles factory in Bangladesh, you’ll know what I’m referring to.

Assuming you prefer hanging out under that rock, here’s the basic low-down: a garment factory at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where 3,500 people worked, collapsed on that fateful day in April, killing 1,129 people, injuring hundreds (according to some reports thousands) and devastating an entire community.

The workers at Rana Plaza had been producing garments for North American and European high street brands in the visibly cracked building for labels including Benetton, Bon Marche, Joe Fresh, Mango, Primark and many others.

While no Australian companies were directly implicated, the revelations from the subsequent Four Corners report reinforce what some of us already knew: many of our major retailers are not manufacturing ethically.

Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) spokeswoman Claire Grigaut says buying locally is a great way to distinguish between clothing that has been ethically produced and clothing that has not.

“Unfortunately when it’s made offshore there’s often not much information about the way it has been made and under what conditions for workers,” she says.

“ECA focus on making sure the supply chain is transparent and we ensure independent monitoring of the supply chain by trade union representatives, rather than company appointed auditors,” she says.

It is these sorts of ethical considerations that convince some Australian designers to manufacture locally.

Bangladesh Rana Plaza Rana Plaza collapseWaratah Karloo, who has her own clothing label Yogini Streetwear, says she makes her own garments for her Glenside boutique in Adelaide.

“We wrap our bodies in garments that hold, as all things do, energy,” she says.

“To have the energy of slave labour and sloppy production clothing us infuses our most immediate environment with these energies.”

Local couturier Paolo Sebastian is also committed to local production, but he says it is growing increasingly difficult to manufacture in Australia.

“Too many jobs go to offshore mass producers when we have amazing workers here and I think it’s a real shame that people don’t hire them,” he says.

“Fabric stores and manufacturing are closing down or moving overseas and it’s making it harder each year for us to stay Australian made.”

Revolution the Label designer Ben Conroy says the decision to manufacture locally versus overseas comes down to personal choice.

“Because of awards and our pay structure in Australia, designers pay a higher cost for locally made produce, attracting a higher recommended retail price that many consumers find hard to justify when it’s next to a similar garment for half the price,” he says.

Conroy, who manufactures the bulk of his pieces overseas, says it takes “a lot of investigating” to ensure safe working conditions and pay rates are in place.

“You may find that you meet with a manufacturer in an office that is nowhere near their factory and they could be leading you on in regards to what they tell you about the work carried out in their factory,” he says.

“However, if you find a manufacturer who is compliant with industry standards and regulations, you may find yourself helping out people who, without that job, could be living in poverty.”

Fellow Adelaide-based designer Kalila Stewart-Davis who operates boutique label Namoi says profitability is a major issue, particularly for emerging Australian designers.

“It’s a major concern for any Australian designer, especially when we are competing on a global playing field with the likes of Zara, Top Shop and H&M,” she says.

“It’s not uncommon for a designer to work an eight hour day and then go home and sew until the early hours of the morning,” she says.

“Even outsourcing to Australian machinists has ethical issues.

“Often jobs are outsourced to an agent, the job is then bid on for the lowest possible production costs and machinists will undercut each other just to secure the work.

“For a boutique label like Namoi it is easier to control the integrity of how the product is produced, but only because so few garments are produced.

“At the end of the day it is up to the purchasing power of consumers and we all know how easy it is to buy a $10 pair of leggings from Kmart!”

Grigaut from Ethical Clothing Australia agrees: “when buying ethical clothing, consumers are supporting local manufacturing, jobs, skills and living standards in Australia,” she says.

“Fast fashion is exploitation but we can’t expect brands and retailers to embrace ethical practices if we, as consumers, don’t support an ethical industry through our purchases.”

Grigaut says there are many reasons why designers might opt to manufacture locally and become accredited through the ECA.

“In the long term, brands will build brand value and limit the costs associated with risk – things like damage to their reputation and fines for non-compliance,” she says.

“Ethical manufacturing comes from well managed businesses that are open and transparent.

“It’s about being ethical in the way they run their businesses and consider their supply chain.

“Ethical manufacturing is about providing fair working conditions for your makers and adopting ethical purchasing practices.”

“Fast fashion is exploitation but we can’t expect brands and retailers to embrace ethical practices if we, as consumers, don’t support an ethical industry through our purchases” – Ethical Clothing Australia

Still, in my view a mass exodus from overseas markets isn’t the answer. Nor is a quick fix likely or even possible.

The problem is endemic and requires retailers to sit down at the table, roll up their sleeves and commit to actually working both with governments in countries like Bangladesh and at a grassroots level to bring about real change.

Inevitably there may be a cost right across the board, but perhaps we should be starting with the salaries of some of the CEOs of these companies. I know we live in a capitalist society, but when the CEO of Coles, Ian McLeod, earns $14.8 million per year, while workers in factories he buys product from work in horrific conditions for 22 cents an hour, I find myself thinking this is bull s***.

That’s why it’s extra disappointing to learn that Australian retailers have been slow to sign up to a safety accord that will require regular inspections at garment factories within nine months. By signing up companies also agree to fund any safety upgrades needed.

While Cotton On, Forever New, Kmart and Target have signed up, Big W, Rivers and Coles have not, according to reports in recent days.

Instead, the Sydney Morning Herald quoted a Coles spokeswoman saying that Coles “have no plans to place further contracts in [Bangladesh].”

Rather than work with that marketplace to bring about change and pay decent wages, it seems Coles, at least, are deserting Bangladesh entirely. Prices might be down in Australia, but are there now people going jobless in Bangladesh?

As a global community, this is a problem of our own making and all of us must shoulder some of the responsibility, but how can we bring about real change?

Here are a few of my suggestions:
1. Let your wallet do the talking: Boycott so-called ‘fast fashion’ and take a more conscientious approach when buying clothes, shoes and accessories;
2. Get thrifty: Support op shops and second hand stores (the environment and the charities they often support will thank you!); and
3. Buy local: We have so many amazing fashion talents right here in our own backyard. You can head to Ethical Clothing Australia to see the latest list of accredited brands or opt to buy one-off or small-run pieces made by local designers. Smaller designer brands that produce their pieces overseas are another option. These labels often take a more hands-on approach in ensuring good working conditions and fair wages. The great thing about smaller labels? The opportunity to converse directly with the designer to find out!

Either way, the bottom line is that everyone should have the right to a decent wage and a safe working environment and large corporations would do well to consider people as well as profits when sourcing their product.

 

Designers who Support Making Locally

Jaimie SortinoJaimie Sortino
“For my brand and label I choose to keep all pieces made in Australia and if I can keep everything made in South Australia, even better. When making custom gowns and bridal wear you can’t get that result offshore. There is a quality and a personal touch to having pieces made right here in Australia.”

Kalila Stewart-Davis of Namoi
“Namoi is a boutique label based in Adelaide, designing and manufacturing clothing in Australia. Manufacturing in Australia is a selling point for Namoi garments, but it does restrict labels like Namoi to a niche market of consumers who are willing  and able to afford to buy garments produced in Australia.”

Paul VasileffPaul Vasileff of Paolo Sebastian
“I strongly believe in keeping jobs in Australia. People are paying good money for their clothing and they want to trust that the garments are made by people who have good working conditions and are paid properly.”

Emma Steen of Emma Steen Accessories
“I choose to make my beaded jewellery locally, not only for the love of my craft but to ensure quality control. The obvious challenge designers face with locally made products is keeping the costs down. It can be extremely hard to compete with other brands that are getting all of their designs made overseas where the labour and material cost is so much lower.”

 

Cassandra MamoneCassandra Mamone of Cassandra Mamone Fine Jewellery
“Because Cassandra Mamone Fine Jewellery is custom designed and made, I have found there is something really powerful and effective in being able to communicate and translate ideas with my jewellers who are in closer geographical proximity. I originally outsourced jewellery craftsmen internationally when I started my business but found that with such a personal product, it’s important to be there alongside the jewellery we make from its inception to delivery.”

Yvonne Baulderstone of Yvonne Faye
“My love of fashion design stemmed from a love of sewing and creating, hence I have always had a desire to keep this part of the business local so I can be a part of it. I have also been one to promote the skills and quality of Australian made products created in safe environments. One must be wary of the conditions of offshore factories. In order to produce garments at such low costs it is obvious that costs must be cut in other areas such as safety and wages.”

 

see&ellCelia Fraser and Libby Spring of see&ell
“We began see&ell in 2011 and have been manufacturing all our pieces ourselves from our home studio. It has been a great experience and a massive challenge all at the same time. We are now looking to expand the label and are checking out local manufacturers for our third collection. Keeping see&ell Australian made and owned is a big deal for us. We want to be able to tell our customers that see&ell is 100 per cent Australian.”

 

NeciaAlexandra Ireland of Necia
“Necia is hand made to order, and I take pride in calling my label Australian made. My label is all about exclusive pieces, designed and produced locally, however I can understand that it is not affordable for some larger labels to produce in Australia, and that there are some offshore manufacturers that are affordable with ethical working conditions.”

 

 

 


Bangladesh pictures: ABC, ibtimes.com, world.time.com

Tell us: Do you buy fast fashion? Do you think larger companies making mega-profits should be held to account? And do you think consumers should take a stand?

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