In a 2010 United States Vogue article titled “Do I get a coffee? A snack? Or something to wear? The H&M 4.95 dress”, journalist Lynn Yaeger draws attention to the fact that these days you can buy a dress for the price of a coffee. Similar to Yaeger, it only took me 5 minutes to search through Cotton On’s website to find a dress retailing at $5.
Just think for a moment about how cheap that is. $5 won’t get you 2 Mee’s sushi rolls, you can’t even get drunk at Moose before midnight on $5, but you can get a dress. It’s startling to me how large brands such as H&M and Cotton On, whose main aim is profit, can produce and sell clothes at such an unbelievably low price… and trust me they are making money!
On the Forbes 2016 list, Zara’s Cofounder was ranked the 2nd richest person in the world with a net worth of 68 billion dollars. The answer to the question of how such cheap prices can lead to unimaginable profits is the offshore production and manufacturing of clothing in countries such as Bangladesh, India and South Korea, where little regulations apply.
A majority of workers in these offshore factories are getting paid less than three dollars a day and little to no safety regulations are in place.
The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, endorsed by the UN Human Rights Commission Rights Council in 2011, expresses that States, and the third-party business enterprises within them, must protect human rights abuses within their territory. In reality, however, though companies will enforce these regulations on the factories they contract with, these factories often then subcontract out to other factories where the original rules are not enforced and the company has no responsibility for the conditions in which the clothes are manufactured. Furthermore, the companies are then not liable for any damages that occur to workers in the subcontracted factories, despite these workers producing their clothes.
This was the case in the 2013 tragedy at Rana Plaza factory, which collapsed killing over 1130 people. Despite clear warnings that the structural integrity of the building was failing due to cracks in the walls, the owners ordered the garment workers to return to work because of the pressure to complete orders from buyers on time.
Many American brands such as Jo Fresh were named and shamed in the Rana Plaza scandal. A brand that is perhaps closer to home (although the incident did occur in America) was drawn into the media in 2013 when a woman opened her Kmart Halloween costume to find an SOS letter from a Chinese worker stating that he was imprisoned in a labor camp working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week to produce clothes for Western countries.
So, whose responsibility is it to change the direction in which the fashion industry is heading (if it isn’t already too late)?
The crux of the argument is that we as the consumer buy too many clothes and we pay way too little for them. Instead of there being 4 seasons in a year, every week there is something new. You can walk into Zara on a Tuesday to buy a dress and then return on Friday to find a whole new and different selection on display. John Oliver put it nicer than I ever could in his statement that: “trendy clothing is cheaper than ever and cheap clothing is trendier than ever”.
As consumers we have the control to call out companies for their manufacturing standards, to be more conscious of where our garments are being made, and also to refrain from the constant need to buy “the next big thing”. I don’t mean to preach, nor do I mean to write this article from a moral high ground.
I myself can’t afford to buy designer clothes and recently bought a Big W t-shirt for work, despite knowing full well the inhumane conditions in which the product was manufactured. Additionally, it’s no longer a matter of “well if I spend more money on a garment I can assume that it has been made ethically”.
Over 90% of the clothing we buy in Australian is made overseas. Even fashion institutions such as Burberry produce their clothes overseas and it was only recently that Alexander Wang was sued by his workers for “sweatshop like conditions” in his New York production facilities.
Admittedly, I think that it is sometimes almost too hard for consumers to buy ethical clothes, especially considering the lack of transparency. It’s one thing to buy clothes made from China, but it’s a whole other story not knowing the conditions within which the garment has been produced. Ultimately, there needs to be stricter enforceable rules to regulate the production of manufacturing clothes overseas. There needs to be more transparency so that consumers know when they buy a piece of clothing where it was made, and in what conditions.
As sad as it is, however, corporations won’t develop these regulations voluntarily, and the realistic way I can see to regulate large transnational fashion corporations is through a UN declaration. There has been some momentum over the past few years to push for a UN declaration, however, there has been limited progress because developed and developing nations can’t agree.
There needs to be a change, and in my opinion it needs to develop in response to a stronger push in international law to make large transnational corporations responsible for the inhuman conditions in which their products are made. Unfortunately, the development of such a document is far away. In the meantime here are some great companies, which source and produce their clothes ethically motioned below.
Everlane.com – this company not only sources their materials and produces their clothes under strict ethical guidelines, but they also provide full transparency with photos of the factories where the clothes are produced.
Patagonia – As of 2015 Patagonia now provides 33 styles made in Fair Trade Certified sewing facilities.
Cue and Veronika Maine – All their clothes are made in Australia and are a certified fair trade company.
If you are after a more extensive list http://www.ethical.org.au/3.4.2/get-informed/clothing/clothing-alternatives/ which has an extensive list of different companies, whether they are ethically or fair trade certified and/or made in Australia.