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Fighting fast fashion: the rise of ethical consumerism

A garment worker in a factory in China. Photo / Getty Images

In the era of fast fashion, what can consumers do to ensure what they're buying hasn't been made by exploited workers?

Five years ago garment workers entered Rana Plaza, an eight-storey building in Bangladesh housing multiple clothing factories. They'd been ordered to continue working in the complex, even after safety concerns had been raised over cracks that had appeared in the walls.

That order resulted in over 1,100 people losing their lives when, shortly after 9 am, the floors of the building collapsed on top of one another. Most of those who died in the tragedy - dubbed "mass industrial homicide" by unions - were female garment workers, creating clothing for retailers and consumers from the Western world. They were making cheap clothes, and their labour - and ultimately their lives - came cheap too.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

It is a common practice worldwide to exchange human rights for cheap labour. So says Michelia Miles, the Development and Education Manager for Trade Aid, a social enterprise which promotes ethical trade and consumer education. She says the conditions many garment workers face are akin to modern-day slavery. “Poverty reduces the power and choices that individuals have. It leads to decisions being taken that aren’t necessarily the best choices in the long term - but they are the only option to survive day by day.”

She explains that these conditions include working for exploitative employers simply to afford a meal, or bonding children into labour to help feed their family. 

Education is a key factor to disrupting this process, she says. “A lack of education as a result of long-term poverty leads to a lack of understanding of human rights and what every individual is entitled to.”

And that's where Trade Aid comes in. It aims to provide workers with environments which protect their rights and wellbeing. It focuses on 10 fairtrade principles which include workplace safety, equal opportunity, fair wages, flexibility for families and environmental protection.

"People are buying less but wanting each purchase to mean more. Brands take notice of these identified trends and look at their own business models for where they can improve their transparency and identify the impact on the people who make the products.”

The influence consumers can have on brands is recognised in this year's Tearfund Ethical Fashion Guide. It grades 114 companies representing 407 brands on how they manufacture and source their products. The investigation examines each company’s social responsibilities, policies, supplier relationships, auditing and the voices of workers. Companies are given an A to F grade. The report notes that the research team don't conduct site inspections of factories as part of their grading. "Therefore, company grades are not an assessment of actual conditions in factories and farms, but rather an analysis of the strength of a company’s labour rights systems," it states.

One of the companies at the top of this year's report was Etiko, which has received the highest grade five times in a row. A family-owned Australian retail business, Etiko is fairtrade and strives to prioritise human rights through the clothing and sports accessories it sells. It ensures its branded t-shirts come from factories which pay a living wage, that no child labour is involved in the production of its products and women are empowered to work.

But the company says meeting those fairtrade objectives isn't without its challenges.

“For many brands it’s all about keeping costs as low as possible, often leading to false economies," says Etiko’s merchandise manager, Clive Marriott. “Price/cost is important but it’s just one of a variety of factors that we need to consider, and it’s certainly not the most important.”

Marriott explains it can be hard to find factories which support workers’ rights. There is also competition to buy ethically-sourced raw materials.

“With non-ethical production, unfortunately, being the default for many mainstream brands, access to ethically certified facilities can be hampered.”

At Etiko, running an ethical business means not just taking a supplier's word for it. The company's garments are printed locally in Melbourne and the factories where the garments are made are inspected in person to ensure that workers’ rights are being met. Etiko also works with third-party certification bodies, such as Fairtrade International and Fairtrade USA, and conduct regular factory audits.

Ultimately, for a business like Etiko to make a positive impact on the fashion industry, it needs customer support.

“We see our customers as advocates for both our brand and the concept of ethical fashion," explains Marriott.

“We vote with our wallets.  If enough consumers walked into their favourite stores and said, 'I am a regular customer, but I am not going to buy anything more from you until you can warrant that everything you sell is ethically made,' then more brands would start to take notice of that consumer demand.”

In short, consumers have “absolute power", says Marriott.

Trade Aid agrees.

“Consumers have the power to change through demanding more information about the relationship behind the trade, and understanding their role and the power they have to influence positive supply chains," says Michelia Miles.

So how can you inject some morality into what you buy? Miles says these simple steps are a start:  

  • Start looking for and actively buying from fair trade companies
  • Educate yourself and others on the benefits of making ethical consumer choices through reading and sharing links on social media
  • Question the brands and stores you usually buy from
  • Make purchases based on quality rather than quantity
  • Educate yourself on industries that interest you and make changes based on your findings. Child labour is an issue in the cocoa industry, so chocolate lovers may want to educate themselves on this and opt for fair trade chocolate in the future.

Etiko's Clive Marriott adds, “Consumers can modify their consumption, lobby governments, engage with unions, share their views on social media, contact well-known brands directly to request change, encourage their friends and families to shop ethically...there any many things consumers can do.”

And Trade Aid has noticed a significant shift already happening in New Zealand.

“There is a trend towards starting up social enterprises here.

“We need to encourage young people wanting to work for businesses who care. It'll lead to a world where employees are evaluating the impact of the businesses they work for, from the inside, to create honesty and integrity in brands," says Miles.

Miles and Marriott agree that there also needs to be a partnership between businesses and producers. Without this, the lives of exploited producers are unlikely to change.

“All fashion brands should behave as if cotton growers and factory workers are their shareholders – imagine what a difference that could make!”