You’ll never look at chain stores the same way again.
Trotting down any city street on any particular day, you’re faced with rows upon rows of stores that promise to make you beautiful, happy, stylish, sweet-smelling and hey, just a better person in general. When standing before these pristine glass megaliths, it is very easy to ignore where these products actually come from.
Or your food for that matter: Amazing lifehack: Reading barcodes tells you where your food is from.
What you might not realise is that environmental, economic and human decisions have to be made for every square inch of fabric, and weighed against every cent of return that fabric might garner. The type and origin of the yarn has a huge impact, the way the fabric is dyed, who stitches the garment, how it is shipped, how it is marketed to an Australian audience – all of these factors add up.
And more often than not, the outcome isn’t pretty.
The fact is, most garment workers earn around 25 cents an hour. There are between 100 and 200 million children working in sweatshops today, feeding a massively unregulated market place eager for increasingly cheaper fashion.
On a related note: The reality TV show set in a sweatshop.
And companies that choose not to know choose to allow the exploitation to continue. Yep, in an apparently human-rights loving place like Australia, only 5% of clothing companies have a policy to ensure overseas workers receive a living wage.
So rather than trust that the big brands will come good, you’d best find some other ways to eradicate slavery from your wardrobe. Here are some tips to get you started:
No more megabrands.
I know this is hard to hear because we all love those super-cheap Swedish trend items – and we were giddy with excitement when they finally came to Australia.
But H&M, for example, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to fast fashion crimes; In 2010, it was revealed that one of H&M’s New York stores was cutting up and dumping unsold jackets and sweaters in the middle of snowpocalypse (one of the coldest, nastiest New York winters on record). In 2010, the Swedish super-brand was also caught red handed fraudulently selling “organic” cotton. Soon after, 21 garment workers perished in a factory fire in Bangladesh, outsourced and contracted by H&M.
H&M are obviously not alone. The only way these brands turn into billion dollar companies is by cutting as many corners as possible to maintain their cutthroat margins.
You’ll probably be interested in: Named: Some of the most exploitative fashion brands.
But in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, consumers have become more demanding of transparency and human decency.
Even a small percentage of customers walking away can make a huge impact, because these are consumer driven organisations. Companies are never too big to fail, and the only way they are going to change is if we hit them where it hurts – reputation and revenue.
Dress like the Empire Records cast.
The good part about ditching the mega-brands is that, at least in Australia, we are blessed with a multitude of alternatives: Vintage and op-shopping remain a viable alternative for the Australian inner-city semi-poor student aged hipsters.
This might not always be the case, though: In the United States, fast fashion companies have already managed to bring their prices down to below op-shop levels, putting many second hand stores out of business.
On top of this, people buy much more clothing than they used to, particularly shoddily made fast fashion items, so there simply isn’t enough demand or resources for these mountains of clothes to be resold.
Stop being so stingy.
We can’t entirely blame the stores for their irresponsible practices; the consumer also has a lot to answer for.
We are so inexplicably proud of our own stinginess — but “I got it on sale” or “it was only $5” is nothing to brag about. Getting an item insanely cheap does not make you a genius that outsmarted the industry — it just makes you another cog in the fast fashion machine.
How do you think that t-shirt got down to $5? The answer is poorer quality fabric, poorer quality stitching, poorer quality design, and absolutely horrendous labour rights standards.
Tell yourself this mantra in the mirror every morning: a t-shirt should never, never, never cost $5.
If something takes up more of your wallet space, then inevitably it will take up less of your cupboard space. You can decide to spend $200 a month on 65 flimsy t-shirts that will disintegrate in a matter of months – or instead you can buy two or three ethical fashion items that have an amazing story and will last you ten years.
Most importantly, your new ethical duds will make you feel like Wonder Woman when you wear them, because you have the warm and fuzzy inner-knowledge that you are making the choice to reject fashion’s most cringe worthy trend: human rights abuses.
Less is more.
On average, women only wear 20-30% of their wardrobe. In the 1990s, Cher from Clueless taught us that best practice is to have a mountain of clothes you barely like, in a wardrobe that you contribute to constantly.
We all know the deep belly-pain of looking into a cavernous wardrobe of poorly made clothes and thinking “I hate everything I own”. For this, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Apart from labour practices that can’t be described as anything but slavery, the environmental impact of this amount of clothing production is profound. According to Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline’s exposé on fast fashion, large clothing chains produce as much as a half a billion garments per year, and in the US, almost 11 billion kg of textile waste is generated annually.
The scale of this is pretty unfathomable, but reflects the change in attitude we have had as consumers. Clothing is now produced by the megaton with the intention of being thrown away after only a handful of wears. This attitude towards our wardrobes didn’t exist a generation ago.
Fast fashion has soared ahead in both destructive production and sales. The only way to detox is to just – walk – away.
People who buy ethical are no longer just dreadlocked potheads protesting outside the Nike store. You can join the likes of Stella McCartney and Natalie Portman on the ethical fashion wave. Once you switch to ethical, when someone says “OMG I love your top,” you will actually have a cool story to share.
Like my Naja undies, which not only look amazing, but a percentage of each purchase goes towards training women with no income in Colombia to sew. Once they have completed the training, they get hired to sew for the company.
Or my Dorsu t-shirt, made in an ethical workshop set up by the organization in Cambodia, with totally transparent labour practices.
Or my Sewing New Futures scarf, the proceeds of which go to training women of the traditional prostitution caste of India into alternative careers. Or my Conscious Step socks, which contribute to a variety of causes in line with the Millennium Development Goals.
Or anything sold on Thread Harvest, a new Aussie website specifically curated for buying alternatives.
These things are not hard to find, particularly in Australia where we’re spoiled for choice in the social enterprise space. You only need to cough up a little more dough to start feeling really good about yourself.
Positive reinforcement works. The more you brag, the more you reaffirm in your own mind the choices you have made. The more you brag, the easier it becomes to walk past an H&M or a Zara store, and just roll your eyes at all the fools racing in.
If only they knew.
Fi is the Co-Founder of The Fabric Social, a social enterprise working exclusively with conflict-affected women. The Fabric Social work to transform one of the greatest causes of poverty: armed conflict. You can shop, donate, or get involved here.