One of the most common questions I get asked is, ‘How do I know when a garment is ethical and sustainable?’ and it’s a very valid question. Sometimes it’s difficult to decipher it all and make the right decision when it comes to buying, and it can all get a little confusing. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s just about taking the time to stop and think before you buy.
I SPOKE TO THE STUDENTS AT EDITHVALE PRIMARY SCHOOL RECENTLY ABOUT ETHICS AND SUSTAINABILITY IN FASHION AND I HAD TO COME UP WITH A THEORY THAT TWELVE-YEAR-OLDS WOULD REMEMBER AND UNDERSTAND. SO HERE'S A METHOD THAT EVERYONE SHOULD SHOP BY.
I’VE COINED IT, "THE THREE M’S", AND THESE 3 M'S WILL GIVE YOU AN IMMEDIATE RULE OF THUMB WITH WHICH TO GUAGE THE PIETY OF A PIECE CLOTHING.
You can discover this by heading straight for the garment label. It is a legal requirement in Australia to have each piece of clothing tagged with its country of origin, so it's black and white.
If it’s made in Australia, that’s a great start because you can be pretty sure it’s been made in safe conditions by someone who’s being paid an award wage. If it’s made in India or China, that usually means it’s been made by someone who may not be paid much at all, working in dangerous and inhumane conditions. There are a select few labels who work closely with small communities in third world countries building ethical supply chains, but this is a rarity.
If there is a safe work arrangement in place, it is pretty much always spelt out on the label. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 170 million children are engaged in slave labour making textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of the fast fashion industry. If the label doesn't explain the working conditions, steer clear. When it comes to a garment’s country of origin, it’s fair to say that it's safest to buy Australian made.
It’s also a legal requirement to have these details listed on the clothing tag. The types of fabrics and materials will give you a rough idea of how much of an environmental impact the garment has had during the production phase, how much of an impact it will have while it’s being worn and washed, and what kind of an impact it will have when you decide to get rid of it.
Natural fibres like cotton, wool and linen are much more environmentally friendly than human-made or synthetic fibres like lycra, polyester and nylon, which are made from non-renewable resources - petrochemicals. Polyester requires more than double the energy of conventional cotton to produce, and it uses harmful chemicals and carcinogens that leak into the waterways and dissipate into the air during production causing significant environmental damage. When synthetic fabrics eventually decompose in landfill, they leach these chemicals straight into the soil and into waterways.
How MUCH you’re paying for a garment, and the cost of a piece of clothing will often reflect the conditions in which it has been made. Let’s use a cotton t-shirt as an example and start from the beginning of its lifecycle. Cotton has to be farmed, harvested, de-seeded, carded, spun and then woven into fabric, and the fabric then needs to be dyed, treated, cut and rolled. It's pretty obvious that there is a lot of work here and this is a costly process.
A designer then spends hours working out the t-shirt’s fit, construction, details and colours, before moving into the production phase where a pattern needs to be made for a sample garment. The sample then needs to be fitted and re-made before a final garment is approved for manufacturing.
The t-shirt then moves into the distribution phase, and if it has been made in India, it needs to be imported to Australia, so non-renewable fossil fuels are used in transportation and carbon emissions are generated. Hundreds of kilograms of plastic and packaging are also used to meet Australia's strict customs requirements, and every person who has touched it thus far has a wage to be paid.
When the t-shirt finally makes it into the retail environment, it has to be merchandised in a store that is operated by staff with wages to pay, and a rental lease to cover, and there’s the cost of labelling, swing tags and store bags.
If you’re standing in a store and thinking about buying this t-shirt and it costs less than $50, don’t do it. If you think about every single step of the garment life cycle that occurs even before you buy it, and all the wages, the time, the materials, the costs, the everything – it is simply not possible that a cheap t-shirt has been made in an ethical environment and the people that have slaved to make this t-shirt most certainly haven't been paid a fair wage.
The "3 M’s" are easy to understand and remember, and when you stop to think about it, it all makes sense. Where a garment is MADE, what MATERIALS it's made from and how MUCH it costs, will answer any questions you have about ethics and sustainability.
Every garment counts. Buy less, choose well, shop local.
The Fashion Advocate x