The ethics of style

Shopping for yourself doesn't mean you can't take steps to help others.

What's at the top of your priority list when it comes to shopping for clothes? Style, fit, brand, quality and price are typically key factors.

Sorting through items in immaculately presented clothing stores, most of us would have to admit that we don't stop to contemplate, even cursorily, the conditions under which the clothes were made.

The tag may tell us where the item was manufactured, but neglects to mention whether those responsible for making it enjoy a safe working environment and receive a fair wage.

That begs the question: when it comes to buying ethically-made clothes, what can the average shopper realistically do?

According to Nick Ray from the Ethical Consumer Guide, a lack of transparency often clouds the ability of consumers to make informed decisions about the conditions in which items are manufactured.

“With most items made in an industrial system there isn't a lot of transparency in terms of the supply chain, so there are a lot of things happening down the line that we as consumers don't see. And clothing is a really good example of that.”

According to Ray, one of the basic things consumers can do is look at where the item is made: such is the nature of the global labour market that often just the country on the label can provide a fair indication of what the answers to our concerns might be.

“One of the major things I would point to is the International Labour Organisation conventions, which cover things like freedom of association, minimum age for labour, and payment of a living wage,” he says.

“There a various countries that have signed and there are some who haven't, which include India, China and Thailand.

“However, if you are sourcing from other countries it doesn't mean all those conventions are actually enforced, because there is no global policing in place – it's individual nations who have decided how to police those. But generally speaking, labour practices are going to be better in countries that have signed on to the conventions.”

Ray says consumers can check to see if the label or retailer has policies in place that stipulate human rights and labour standards that must be met by its suppliers.

“The reality is that third party certification, which means that there is an external body involved, is better practice than simply in-house policies. But that's still better that having no policies, so it's a bit of a continuum of choice.

“There are a few different organisations carrying out auditing of work places, but the main one is Fairtrade International. It's far from perfect but it is probably one of the most robust ones, looking specifically at labour.”     

The sale price of an item also offers some indication, as according to many activists it is retailers who compete heavily on price and seek to instigate fast fashion trends that are responsible for the kind of pressures that ultimately lie behind systems of cost-cutting and exploitation.

It is an accusation that is driving retailers such as Swedish-owned fashion giant H&M to strive for a credible level of corporate social responsibility with its suppliers in Asia.

However, such is the complexity of the supply chains at work in the garment industry, that even a major retailer such as H&M claims it can't guarantee the ethical production of all its clothes.

“We are to some extent dependent on the suppliers — it is impossible to be in full control,” stated Helena Helmersson, H&M's Head of Sustainability, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper last year.

But while companies such as H&M demur to the challenges present, the recent collapse of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka – where more than 1100 poorly-paid clothing industry workers (mainly women) died – devastatingly illustrates just what is at stake for the people that are working in unsafe clothing factories.

Purchasing decisions are one opportunity to affect the lives of people working in some of the world's poorest countries, while what we do with clothes we no longer wear can also help those in need closer to home.

In July 2010, Country Road joined with the Red Cross in Australia and New Zealand to launch Fashion Trade, a clothing exchange program that rewards customers with gift vouchers for donating second-hand clothes to Red Cross retail stores.

Melbourne shirt retailer Déclic also runs a program where it credits customers for returning wearable shirts which it then donates to Wear for Success, a not-for-profit volunteer organisation that provides disadvantaged people with quality work clothes.

“Over the last two years we've donated approximately 200 shirts to Wear for Success,” says Déclic owner Giles du Puy.

“We've got customers who love the scheme so much they bring us up to 10 shirts in one go and don't want any credit in return.”

Déclic last year ran another program, Shirts for Africa, in which it donated pre-loved shirts to disadvantaged African countries.