|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 fashion - #educateyourself!). 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!|
Q: 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.
He 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 person.
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.
So what I'm asking is... can I help change at all? Am I contributing to unemployment? How do I know if a company is actually ethical (h&m was praised for being the most ethical clothing company of 2014 but I don't think it actually is?)? And what can I do if I don't have a lot of money?
A: Hi Rita, thank you for your email! Let's get straight into it.
By 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 their "Nikewatch". 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. But I also feel like there's a lot more smaller, ethical brands available than there were 2 years ago. Ethical fashion 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.
Your 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.
But won't boycotting/refusing to buy clothes from a particularly 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.
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?
It's 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!
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.
This 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 planet.
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. Don't beat yourself up about it. Not everybody is going to be ABLE to purchase ALL of their clothing from ethical brands, either due to costs, limited accessibility 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. And as 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.
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