When I was a child in the 1960s most of Australia's clothing was made in Australia. As of my 60th birthday Australia produces about 5 percent of its clothing. As a kid my wardrobe consisted of a school uniform, a couple of outfits for play, a good outfit for Sundays and not a whole lot else; my parents wardrobes were similarly lean. Warm clothes were hand knitted, a good dress or skirt was made by hand, clothing was passed down from one child to the next, my father's one suit lasted many years.
In 2015 many of us have more clothing than ever, more to wear, more to hang in already overstuffed wardrobes and even more to wash. Since we outsourced the making of our clothing and the sourcing of our textiles we are buying more at a cheaper price, using more resources and paying less for clothing than we ever had throughout human history.
This increased consumption is a global phenomenon. We seem to have gone from a four season a year clothing cycle to changes that are monthly, even weekly. Does anyone pay full price anymore? Sales appear to be ubiquitous, 50 percent or more off at the beginning of a season is not uncommon and 70 percent or more occurs often enough to be noticeable.
Shoes for $10, a pair of jeans for $15, a dress for $14 it's as if the 1970s never went away. Or is it?
Why is the price of clothing so cheap?
Outsourcing of the developed world's textile industry has placed a huge labour intensive industry in the developing world where many of the world's poorest workers live. More than 80 percent of these workers are women and children, who are paid less than a living wage, who work in unsafe often-times unsanitary conditions, who are in some cases deprived of human rights.
In many cases western clothing houses contract to the lowest bidding group who may perform the work themselves or further sub-contract it to another group (at a lower price).This "devolves" responsibility (ahem) from the clothing house as the supply chain becomes less transparent and more fractured so is harder to trace.
The demand of western tastes prepared to pay limited dollars encourages the growth of questionable practices and techniques.
Perhaps the distressed jeans you are wearing caused silicosis in the person who made them? Garment workers can contract silicosis when small particles of silica dust from the sand used to distress jeans embed themselves within the lungs. This causes shortness of breath, coughing, weakness and weight loss. It's incurable and can be fatal.
The waste from textiles amounts to millions of tons of environmental damage per year in the country of making, in the country of consumption the problem is dumping into landfill of cheap non-biodegradable clothing.
All is not lost, there are ways to have an ethical wardrobe:
- Know what you need, make a list and buy from it.
- Consider used clothing that offers so many benefits, it's cheap(er), it recycles and you can upcycle it, it doesn't require the use of precious resources.
- Buy from accredited clothing companies (see below)*.
- Choose the best quality you can afford so that your garments last as long as possible.
- Make your own clothing. Yes, quality fabric and yarn aren't cheap, but the garment you make will be customised to your size, style, taste and requirements. I have handknitted jumpers (sweaters) that are decades old.
- Buy/source from the most ecologically ethical brands you can.
Ethical Clothing Australia is an independent body which studies the supply chain of Australian clothing companies to determine if they should be accredited for ethical production. You can check on your favourite brands to see if they have received accreditation.
Oxfam is asking questions of some of our well known clothing stores, especially those who still won't sign industry-endorsed workers' rights agreements. Check out more from Oxfam here.
Similar organisations include
Valuable reading and viewing on this issue includes