Every year, a report about New Zealand fashion manufacturers and suppliers is released. The brands are assigned a grade based on the ethical practices (or lack thereof) in the production of their clothing. They are graded from the supply chain to the production of fabrics, and everything in between. Every year, that report tells us what we already know: far down the supply chain, New Zealand clothing is responsible for exploiting workers. And yet nothing changes.
The annual report, released by Tearfund, is a good thing. It gives consumers the power to make informed choices, and that’s important. But it’s shocking that, despite the years that we have been aware of these bad practices, only 11% of New Zealand fashion brands are paying a living wage all the way down their supply chain. The lack of change would suggest that relying on consumers to make the ‘right’ choices will not change the market.
The problem is that consumers do not have the power to overhaul the fashion industry, or to change our mentality of buying fast fashion. Bad choices are made so easy for us. When faced with the choice between spending $20 on a linen top from a chain store or buying an ethically-produced linen top for $200, there is a clear incentive to buy one over the other (unless you have a spare $180, in which case I’m jealous that you can afford to buy ethical fashion). Many consumers simply cannot afford to prioritise ethics over price. So our valuable knowledge about ethical fashion is difficult to put into practise.
Consumers should not be burdened with the task of driving companies towards ethical practices. Brands with money and power should be using that power to make changes and lead the way. Instead, they’re churning out cheap fashion without considering the position of workers down the supply chain.
Many would argue that the free market will lead companies towards ethical practices. In theory, if consumers don’t like unethical fashion, they’ll stop buying it, so companies will stop using unethical practices, and everyone will be happy.
But it’s not that simple, and that theory clearly hasn’t worked. Consumers are essentially trapped into ‘bad’ purchases because of drastic price differentials. Choosing to buy ethically often means choosing to buy one shirt for the price of five. And that’s not a choice that many people are able to afford.
To make matters worse, many companies refuse to disclose information about their unethical practices. That means that consumers have to dig – or rely on the work of organisations like Tearfund – to even get an idea of where their clothing is coming from and who was hurt in the process. Sometimes it’s even more complicated. Supply chains can get so messy under pressure that the brands themselves don’t even know (or don’t try to find out) where or how the fabric is made.
With large companies not even bothering to find out how their clothing is made, how can we expect consumers to do that work? The blame cannot be passed on. It is not up to the buyers of clothing to change the practices of profit-driven companies. Transparency and ethical standards within the fashion industry are needed. It’s time for fashion brands to step up.Support Villainesse