When I was 21, a new top from Sportsgirl cost around $60. Pants or a skirt would set you back 80 bucks. That was okay, I earned $20 an hour working in a bar. If I really wanted a new outfit, I did an extra shift or two. Around that time, I took off backpacking and discovered, among many other things, cheap clothing. In Thailand, China and even the UK, you could buy five outfits for what I used to spend on one at home. This was GREAT!
By the time I came home, four years later, Australia had cottoned on to cheap clothing (pun intended) and ten years later, despite all other trends heading the other way, clothing prices continue to go down. Isn’t that fantastic?
Ummm. No. No, it’s really not. Not if you’re a textile worker in today’s Cheapest Developing Country That Will Make Our Crap For Peanuts. Not if you’re a planet choked with disposable clothing that wears out in five minutes and gets tossed into landfill.
The Cheapest Developing Country at the moment is Bangladesh. As we were enjoying the prospect of a day off for ANZAC day, thousands of textile workers were being buried alive in the factory where they made cheap clothing for labels like Mango and Beneton. If you didn’t see the story on Four Corners about the appalling conditions that lead to more than 1000 deaths, then you need to watch it right now. And take heed of the warning, the images are disturbing.
Although none of Australia’s cheap clothing labels happened to have orders with the specific factory that collapsed, all our big-name cheap clothing retailers are implicated in this disaster. Because it’s likely that their clothes are made in similar conditions, it’s just that the cracks haven’t yet begun to show.
In the aftermath of the factory collapse, brands like Target, Kmart and Forever New have signed an accord to say they will check the building safety of their sweatshops from now on. Which is great. But why did it take more than 1000 deaths, hundreds of amputees and, most crucially, media exposure to make this happen?
When margins are tiny, there is no budget for a clothing company to send someone out to check every single factory in which their product is produced. I understand that.
What the retailers say, and what I am forced to agree is this: it comes back to us, the consumers. If we demand ever cheaper prices, then we are the ones exploiting workers in developing countries.
I know it hurts, because I love a bargain as much as anyone. But I have broken my cheap-clothing habit, and after watching that Four Corners report, I am never buying cheap clothing again. I hope you’ll think about it too.
Here are some ideas to help you break up with $4 t-shirts:
- Buy second-hand. Op shops are choked with disposable clothing, buy it from there instead.
- Find higher-end second-hand clothing on eBay or The Gumtree.
- Give up on fashion and focus on style instead.
- If you have a favourite brand or store, find out where their clothes are made. If you can’t find out, don’t buy it.
- Shop at markets or young designer shows where you can talk to the designer directly.
- Think about the true value of the item of clothing – materials, labour, transport, marketing, merchandising etc. Does it still seem like you’re paying a fair price?
- Search for Fair Trade clothing or look for the brands accredited with Ethical Clothing Australia certification.
One last thought for you: An Oxfam study found that 70 percent of Aussies would pay more for clothing if they knew it was made under fair conditions. Would you?
To find out more about sweatshops, click here.