Who will lead the way? Fashion is a human rights issue

By Claire Gaynor | 16 May 19
fashion human rights issue

I recently found myself, an avid lover of fashion, remarking to a colleague: ‘Really, all aspects of the fashion chain are terrible. The more I think about it, the more I feel like we shouldn’t wear clothing at all – we should all just be nude’. She laughed, but I was kind of serious.

It was International Women’s Day (IWD) – a day of celebration and reflection, and no doubt anger and frustration, for many of us who identify as women. Some colleagues and I sat in a fancy-looking bar, sipping on cocktails and discussing our experiences of the gender imbalance in previous workplaces.

What sparked this conversation was a promotional email my colleague had received on IWD from a large Australian fast-fashion brand. Spruiking their products ‘made by women for women’, a link took us to their website, where they had an ‘International Women’s Day collection’ – T-shirts made by women, probably under questionable conditions, for Australian women to wear and feel ‘empowered’ for one day of the year.

Ironically enough, IWD is thought to have emerged as a result of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York, when women – who still make up an overwhelming 80 per cent of the world’s garment workers – protested against their working conditions.

This promotion bothered me, but sadly it wasn’t the only one of its kind that came out that day. The undeniable commodification of women’s rights and feminism, and the astounding hypocrisy, doesn’t sit well with me – how is creating these lines of clothing, which inevitably end up in landfill, helping women in any way? A percentage from each sale was going towards this company’s foundation – which, at least on the surface it seems, has done work creating many programs in developing countries – but I failed to see how this kind of production is sustainable in the long term.

Coincidentally, it was also the Friday eve before the Labour Day long weekend. As some states celebrated our country’s eight-hour working day, there was something unsettling about this pseudo-feminist merchandise in relation to Oxfam’s latest damning report on the damaging effects of Australia’s $23.5 billion fashion industry, Made in poverty: the true price of fashion.

‘A living wage is not a luxury’

Oxfam’s report exposes the extreme cycle of poverty almost all of these workers are subjected to. Teaming up with the Bangladesh Institute for Labour Studies and Institute for Workers and Trade Unions in Vietnam, 472 workers from Bangladesh and Vietnam were interviewed – all of whom were employed in garment factories that supplied major Australian clothing brands, such as Big W, Target, Kmart and Cotton On.

Their findings uncovered shocking, ‘systemic exploitation’ of workers; 100 per cent of Bangladeshi and 74 per cent of Vietnamese workers are paid below a living wage, which is defined as the minimum wage required to meet the basic needs of a full-time worker in their respective country, including food, housing, health care, child care, education and so on. As the UN Declaration of Human Rights states, everyone should have the right to a standard of living that allows for each of these things. However, nine out of 10 Bangladeshi workers interviewed can’t afford enough food for themselves or their families, and 76 per cent of Bangladeshi and 53 per cent of Vietnamese workers can’t afford medical treatment. A majority of these workers don’t have running water – also a basic human right. One in three of the workers interviewed had been separated from their children.

One worker interviewed in Bangladesh, Chameli, is a mother of three. Working an average of 11 hours each day in a factory that supplies clothes to Big W, she earns around 51 cents per hour, totalling around $128 per month – the approximate minimum wage for Bangladeshi workers as of 1 December 2018, which meets only 49 per cent of a living wage. Chameli has been working since she left school at the age of 11.

Unsurprisingly, Oxfam’s 2017 report A living wage in Australia’s clothing supply chain found that by raising the cost of each item of clothing by one per cent (which, at $10 a T-shirt, is a small and affordable increase to the vast majority) Australian companies could ensure a basic living wage for these heavily exploited garment workers.

‘The rise of the conscientious consumer’

Angela Bell, National Manager at accreditation body Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA), says reports such as these are great at raising awareness in consumers.

‘Oxfam’s report and the research they’ve done is really important in shining a light on the conditions of people working overseas,’ she says. ‘We’re sort of seeing this rise in what we call the “conscientious consumer”. People really are becoming aware of what’s happening in fast fashion and global supply chain.’

If I’m being honest, trying to be a responsible consumer 100 per cent of the time can be exhausting. If you’re anything like me, you’ll oscillate between being a fully committed eco-warrior who reads clothing labels voraciously, who feels warm and fuzzy from the words ‘Made in Australia’, and a wishy-washy hypocrite who turns a blind eye to grab some cheap gym clothes at a discount department store, because it’s convenient.

We can’t keep ignoring the facts for the sake of convenience. Not when those cheap gym clothes come at the cost of a garment worker’s livelihood. Not when it takes 2,700 litres of water to make one cotton T-shirt, which is enough drinking water for one person for 2.5 years. Not when we have preventable disasters, such as the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse that killed 1,134 people.

Fashion Revolution Week, which falls on the anniversary of Rana Plaza, urges consumers to raise awareness via social media by asking their favourite labels #whomademyclothes? Is it up to us as consumers, however, to lead the change? Or should these big fast fashion brands start compromising their huge profits in order to pay garment workers a living wage? Or, should we leave it up to our governments, to have stricter regulations? The leadership on this issue is somewhat murky.

Angela Bell says it’s a combination of all three, but that she believes businesses are ‘inherently responsible’ for their entire supply chains. She says it’s unacceptable for businesses that outsource their work to not take responsibility for their supply chain working conditions.

She points to two recent studies in the UK, which surveyed shoppers and their expectations around who should be responsible. ‘Overwhelmingly, they were saying businesses should be responsible for what’s going on in their supply chain, and that they’d be willing to pay a bit more to know that it’s ethically produced,’ she says.

But, she says, governments can also play a role in terms of looking at the industry. Australia finally introduced the Modern Slavery Act, to regulate local businesses’ supply chains, which took effect 1 January 2019 – albeit some years after the UK, where a government inquiry into fast fashion has just wrapped up. She says for the ECA to continue accrediting Australian businesses and helping them do the right thing, government support is critical.

‘We’re very lucky actually, in that the Victorian government supports the work we’re doing … we couldn’t operate without that,’ she says, adding that the government recently supported the launch of the ECA’s Guide to Ethical Shopping in Melbourne, which has garnered lots of interest so far.

But, as I point out, costs can be a barrier to consumers buying ethical fashion, which can be prohibitively expensive. ‘You’ve just got to do what you can,’ says Bell, who suggests alternatives such as op shopping, or ‘looking at investing in a piece and thinking about it more long term’ as more affordable ways to combat the vicious fast fashion cycle.

Staying informed about your favourite brands’ supply chains can only be a good thing. The growing number of resources for consumers – such as the Baptist World Aid 2019 Ethical Fashion Report, which rated 130 fashion companies on a scale from A to F – are keeping brands accountable for their supply chains and consumers better informed about their choices.

Thankfully, there is a glimmer of tentative hope. In response to Made in Poverty, Cotton On, Target Australia, Kmart Australia and CityChic have all pledged to strengthen their commitments to living wages for their garment workers; whether or not this will result in decisive action remains to be seen.

Until then, the same message comes through, time and time again: reduce, re-use, recycle and think before you buy. Demand more transparency from your favourite clothing labels. Even if we can’t all lead change, we’ve got to do what we can. People’s lives depend on it.