It’s hard to equate our kids’ brightly coloured outfits with the horror that faced hundreds of workers in the Bangladesh factory that collapsed in Dhaka on April 24. However, as highlighted by Fairfax writer Alecia Simmonds, there is an undeniable connection between those $5 t-shirts and the unthinkable working conditions many garment workers around the world endure.
I’m probably not alone in having young children who destroy clothes in the blink of an eye. As babies I made a concerted effort to buy my kids locally manufactured clothes made from organic fibres. It didn’t take too long to downgrade my principles. For convenience I started to opt for clothes that looked okay and most importantly cost very little. It’s no surprise the country of origin labels in my kids’ clothes read like a roll call for the world’s most impoverished and economically challenged regions.
Although the clothes I bought were cheap they all carried the insignia of solid, reputable brands I trusted. I never gave much thought to production ethics but if the ‘made in Bangladesh’ statement caught my eye I dismissed any concerns with the assumption that my trusted brand would engage in exemplary trade practices. That trust was a handy means to wipe clean my conscience and was clearly misplaced.
With a number of well-known high street brands having a presence in the Dhaka factory (unwittingly or otherwise), it’s clear brand reputation cannot be relied upon when it comes to making ethical decisions regarding our kids’ clothes. There is plenty we can do, however, to ensure our buying habits are helping rather than hindering efforts to secure rights for garment workers:
Organisations such as Oxfam, Fair Trade and Labour Behind the Label all have websites that detail the issues surrounding workers’ rights. Consumer guides are also available that provide information about companies’ ethical transactions. Shop Ethical is part of the Australian based not-for-profit organisation, Ethical Consumer Group. Their app allows shoppers to view the positive and negative aspects of ethical trading as it relates to a specific brand or organisation. As Nick Ray from Shop Ethical explains, “Our assessment is an entry point that encourages people to start taking responsibility for their purchasing decisions”. Having immediate access to information about retailers means it’s easy to make informed choices while we shop.
Buy Local … with care
Unfortunately ‘Australian made’ isn’t a guarantee of ethical production. Exploitation is an issue faced by many garment workers in Australia who often work cash-in-hand for very low pay and who are deprived of basic entitlements. According to the activist group Fairwear, it’s estimated that, “50-70% of Australian made clothing is outsourced, usually to migrant women working at home or in backyard sweatshops in suburbs around Australian cities.” Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) is addressing this issue with an accreditation program that verifies companies’ ethical credentials. Accredited companies who manufacture in Australia are allowed to display the ECA trademark. This provides assurances to consumers about the supply chain and commitment to workers’ rights. According to ECA’s Simon McRae, buying ECA accredited clothing needn’t be expensive, “There are competitive advantages to manufacturing in Australia which means buying locally produced clothing doesn’t necessarily mean spending more.”
Children’s clothing forms part of the ‘fast fashion’ cycle where demand for inexpensive, trend sensitive garments means manufacturers are under huge pressure to meet large orders quickly and cheaply. Because the items don’t last we soon discarded them, thus creating a need for yet more cheap clothes. Buying better quality garments less often is a way to take pressure off supply chains. Generally, more expensive items will last longer and won’t need to be replaced so quickly, as will clothing that doesn’t mirror seasonal adult trends. Ultimately, ethical considerations should be just as important as getting the right fit and style.
Recycling is a good way to access inexpensive (or even free) clothing and is another way to alleviate the strain on clothing manufacturers. Nick Ray recommends a community approach that includes sourcing second hand clothes from the older children of family and friends, passing on clothes when the kids grow-out of them, hand-making items and buying from op-shops.
Retailers care about what we think and how it influences our spending decisions. Social media is a powerful platform for the kind of protest that can exert real pressure on companies (just ask Myer CEO Bernie Brooks). It makes good business sense to keep customers happy and pissing them off can really hurt a company’s back pocket. You only need to look at the damage done to Nike’s brand in the 1990s when communities protested about the company’s use of sweatshop labour to see how effective the public voice can be.
Make it a Habit
Although the Bangladesh tragedy is still very much in our minds, a few angry tweets will not engender long-term change. We need to make sustained changes to the way we buy or acquire children’s clothes. We need to demand better quality, buy less, and as Fairtrade Australia’s Craig Chester outlines, “Support organisations that are doing the right thing as this will create a demand for production practices that support workers’ rights.” Finally, Simon McRae reminds us to always ask, “How can it be so cheap?” because in all likelihood the answer is that someone somewhere has been exploited.