I get a lot of emails from people around the world asking me for help or for my opinion on something. Like, a lot lot. And I often feel bad that I can't respond to every single one of them. However, this particular email is a question I'm asked frequently but often don't respond to just because of the amount of time it would take me to compose a decent response! So I thought that I would finally write that decent response and post it here, so that I can not only point future-emailers in this direction, but also so this can be a resource for people interested in ethical fashion (or really, anyone interested in
!). The answer draws on my experiences and knowledge with ethical fashion that I've gathered over the past 2-and-a-bit years since I've been mostly wearing and only promoting ethical fashion. I hope that someone out there will find this useful! Anyway, on to the question!
Hello Annika, how are you? Last
week I had a heated conversation with my boyfriend (that kind of ended up in an argument...) about ethical clothing and shopping. I told him that after watching documentaries and reading some articles I
decided to avoid shopping for big brands and go to charity shops and
learn to make my clothes instead. I didn't want to support the unfair
treatment of the workers anymore.
What he said angered me, but at the same time made me feel a bit hopeless.
said that nothing would change if I stopped shopping for big brands,
that those workers would still be treated unfairly. He said that they're
working there because a bad job is still better than no job at all in
the first place, so I'm contributing to unemployment. And lastly, that
if I tried to look for ethical companies, they could be easily lying
about their practices.
Being vegan I know that
one person can make a difference, and no matter how small, a difference
in a positive direction is better than no change at all. I know that by
avoiding big brands the demand for ethical clothes will be up by one
But I can't help feeling like this is
all for nothing and living where there is literally ONE charity shop
it'd be difficult for me to keep on trying... I'm also broke and ethical
clothing companies are crazy expensive.
A: Hi Rita, thank you for your email! Let's get straight into it.
You. Can. Make. A. Difference.
choosing to not support dodgy companies, you ARE making a difference.
When consumers vote with their dollars, and enough people begin to
question the companies making their clothes, companies DO change. A big
example is Nike. Around 2005, Nike was in the news a lot for their use of
child and sweatshop labour to produce their very expensive
sports shoes. Consumer pressure and outrage, along with boycotts and a
significant drop in sales, forced Nike to increase wages, safety,
workers rights and become much more transparent
about the labour they were using. To this day, they continue to be transparent
about their manufacturing processes and have continued targets to both
improve conditions for their workers and sustainability in
manufacturing, and face ongoing scrutiny from independent/charity
organisations like Oxfam, who place ongoing pressure on Nike through
". Now, Nike are still not particularly good
, and I still wouldn't be comfortable buying from them, but it is an example of consumer pressure leading to rather large changes.
Lately, many more companies have also been forced to become more transparent due to
consumer demand. It's sad that a massive disaster - the Rana Plaza
factory collapse - was the main catalyst for much of this change, when
human rights abuses have been ongoing for decades, however the scale of
the disaster, allowing it to become a major media story and prominent in
the consciousness of consumers in rich countries, HAS led to positive
changes all over the fashion world. Companies such as H&M, Cotton On
and Kmart (those last two are Australian brands) - all brands that used
to be extremely nontransparent and untraceable - have become much more
upfront about where their clothes are made, and have started making some
moves to improve the lives of workers at every stage of supply. One of
the major reasons for those changes is because consumers began to
question and boycott those companies. However, they absolutely still
have a long way to go, and continuing to question them is the only way
they'll continue caring about these issues. Again, you vote with your
dollar. (And, since you were wondering, HERE
is the lowdown on H&M).
I've been trying to shop ethically for the past 2 years now, yet even in that short time I
have seen a lot of change in many big companies.
Companies are more transparent and the chain of supply is more
traceable. They care more about sustainability and global warming. But I also feel like there's a lot
more smaller, ethical brands available than there were 2 years ago.
These companies have lately been able to flourish, where they
would have previously been totally excluded from the market, because
more people are making more conscious decisions.
boyfriend's statement, that you might as well support dodgy brands
because otherwise "you'll be contributing to unemployment" is, in my opinion, a really crappy worldview to have.
|"Might as well buy clothes from sweatshops because getting $1 a day is better than nothing!" No.|
|That particular excuse leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.|
After the Rana Plaza
collapse, consumer demand along with protesting of workers forced
standards in many Bangledesh clothing factories to be increased. Which,
overall, was a positive thing for workers. However, as a result, 35 factories were also forced to close
A number of people would have lost their jobs. But - is
that entirely a BAD thing? The closing of those incredibly unsafe
factories potentially avoided yet another Rana Plaza disaster. It was bad that a lot of people lost their jobs, but preferable to yet another 1100 people losing their lives.
Overall, pressure on companies on large scales has led
to positive changes
and improved the lives millions of workers, however small those improvements may have been in some places. It may seem to be happening at a frustratingly slow rate, and it's not going to change overnight. However, it is something you can
help by both simply being more aware of the issues
and choosing where to spend your money.
But won't boycotting/refusing to buy clothes from a particular company actually trickle down and hurt the workers, who will be out of a job because they're no longer making your clothes?
Maybe this is where your boyfriend was coming from, and it is
a complex issue, but the simple answer is - no.
|Skeptical face - this is another common justification that I hear for buying from unethical companies.|
If consumers choose to boycott a company, the company generally then thinks "oh, crap. We need to pay our workers more and be more transparent about our supply. " Just like in the Nike example above. And even if a worker's wages were doubled
this isn't going to really hurt either the company OR the consumer, even if all the costs were passed on to consumers
The problem arises when COMPANIES boycott particular factories
. So, putting pressure on companies to pull out of particular factories or countries, like China, Bangledesh or Cambodia, is not the right way to go about fixing things because this will indeed cause massive unemployment and hurt those economies. The right way to go about this is putting pressure on companies to improve the conditions at the factories they already use or own. And yes, that can be done by letting them know why you're not shopping there. Vote with your dollars.
How do I know if a company is actually ethical?
true that a lot of companies have "ethical statements" on their
websites or in stores, but you're totally right - these are just words. How much of
them can you trust?
Well, there's actually a number of
independent companies and charity organizations that look into these
things, especially for bigger brands. There are quite a few resources
that can help you to decide where to shop. Shop Ethical
and Behind the Barcode
are two Australian organisations that I use (they also have some big international brands listed. Internationally, I'm not so sure of good resources so if anybody would like to help out, that's what the comments section is for!). Also, Good On You App
is a new app that you can get on your phone, to help you out while you're shopping! These organisations investigate companies
and create a "grading system" based on transparency, payment of living
wages, traceable suppliers and efforts to avoid or reduce slave/child labor. Where
a company's items are made also gives you some indication of the ethics
behind them, however just because something says "Made in Australia" or
"Made in America" this doesn't immediately qualify a company as
ethical. Sweatshops still exist in richer countries. There are still
underpaid, overworked home-workers. Many are migrants or illegal
immigrants who can't find stable and legal work, and so abuses and
underpayment go unreported. Look for things which are certified organic
or fair trade, or find out if clothes are being made in a factory, and
where that factory is (this will give you some indication if
minimum-wage standards are being enforced). Email companies. Tag them on
social media posts. Make a fuss. Google the shit out of them. Do your
research. This article
is full of useful tips on investigating a company if you can't find out much about them online!
|Oh boy, Annika's getting drunk off her advice-wine - this article has gone on for a very long time. But don't worry - we're almost at the end!|
What if I don't have a lot of money?
As you mentioned, charity shops are a good place to buy clothes from! Besides from not supporting bad manufacturing processes, you're usually supporting charities who pump the money back into the community! However,
if you don't have very good charity shops in your area, don't stress -
there's still plenty of other options available to you.
I've actually created an Ethical Fashion Directory
for affordable-but-cute online clothing stores! Go and check those stores out!
Perusing market stalls and second-hand-sellers on places like Depop, Etsy and
Ebay are also good ways to get cute clothes without giving your money to companies that you'd rather not support. And there's a LOT of people out there trying to sell their old clothes, especially in the age of online shopping!
Not all big
brands are bad. Do your research. I was pleasantly surprised to find out
that an Australian company I quite like, Sportsgirl, is actually
pretty damn decent and so I recently bought myself a new pair of overalls and
some denim shorts (both things I find difficult to make for
myself). While they're slightly more expensive than similar "fast
fashion" chains, the items are much better made and will last a lot longer. So really, I'm saving myself money in the long term.
leads me to my next point, which is learning to appreciate quality over quantity.
Buying a $5 shirt which will fall apart at the seams in a matter of
months might save you money in the short term, but won't save you in the
long term. You're much better off purchasing quality items that will
last, instead of having to buy new clothes every couple of months and
throw out your old ones, because they're not even good enough to donate
to charity stores. It's both better for your wallet and better for the
You can, of course, make your own clothes
and learn how to repair clothes to extend their lives. And, of
course, my youtube channel exists
(along with thousands of other
tutorials on the internet) to help you to learn how to do that! ;)
And remember, moral absolutism in any form is not really achievable
Most people cannot ensure that everything they wear is 100% percent
ethical, and that's okay. In fact, even some of the best companies face a lot of challenges making sure that every single person in their line of manufacturing is being treated 100% fairly. And not everybody is going to be ABLE to purchase ALL of their clothing from ethical
brands, either due to costs, limited accessibility, limited sizes or time constraints.
You don't HAVE to cut yourself off from cheap fashion entirely - some
things are really hard to find secondhand, cheap & ethical, or to
make for yourself such as handbags, backpacks, shoes, socks and bras.
you said, a small change in a positive direction is better than no
change at all! You'll probably also even inspire the people around you
to make more conscious decisions as well, which will have a knock-on
effect of causing more companies to care about these issues - so the effect
will be larger than you think!
Lastly, just in case you didn't notice all my linking to it before, Clean Clothes Campaign
is a super
useful resource for understanding the issues behind "going ethical" with fashion.
All the best - keep questioning the world around you and keep being awesome!