A tradition of disposable clothing has existed in the fashion industry for many years — clothing that falls apart easily, garments that you wear twice and then give away. However, we rarely consider what effect this impulsive consumption of goods has. Perhaps we know at one level that the fashion industry has quite a lot to do with poverty?
Recently I walked into a 'disposable clothes shop' in Sydney and viewed it through a different lens. As I looked at a beautifully embroidered shirt and a pair of trousers, I started to picture the women who worked to assemble its pieces.
Remembering lines of women in Cambodia walking along Phnom Penh’s roads with pink scarves around their heads, long sleeved shirts and simple black pants, my conscience was pricked. These women were on their way to work in garment factories, yet rarely did I remember seeing on the labels of my clothing 'Made in Cambodia'.
While these Cambodian women work in comparatively good conditions, it is impossible for Cambodia to continue on this path as it can no longer compete in the world market. The franchise that China has on the garment industry is preventing countries like Cambodia from working their way out of poverty.
On the other side of the world the situation is similar. The United States subsidises its cotton farmers, which prevents African countries such as Mali from being able to export good quality cotton to a world market. Peru is in a similar situation with its alpaca wool.
This situation was considered in The Dollar a Day Dress, a documentary made by the BBC's Panorama in 2005. The documentary travelled to Peru, Mali, Uganda and Cambodia to source material from people who lived on less than a dollar a day. The dress was then created by London School of Fashion students and paraded during fashion week, 2005. However, despite advocacy efforts like this, two years later, the situation has not improved.
In July 2007, the world will reach the halfway point of the UN Millennium Development Goals. These development goals aim to alleviate extreme poverty and hunger, providing universal primary education and addressing gender inequality. So let’s look at the facts. Australia is a signatory to these UN promises, and by signing on to them Prime Minister John Howard signed onto a pledge which states:
"We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want."
Australia currently ranks 19th out of 22 OECD countries in its contribution to overseas aid spending. In last week’s Budget, whilst the Federal Government increased the aid budget, it failed to increase aid funding from its current level of 0.3 per cent of GNI. The budget did however decrease its governance funding on a percentage basis, and increased infrastructure, health and education spending by $1.6 billion over four years. This is promising, in that less aid dollars are being spent on security operations in places such as the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste, and more is being spent on sustainable development. Nonetheless, our signing of free trade agreements with the United States is the very thing which keeps developing countries from working their way out of poverty.
One answer to these complex problems is for Australia to show some leadership, and start providing more and better aid; to focus its aid dollars on development projects with a mandate of building peace and alleviating poverty, and investing in fair trade initiatives. One of the Millennium Development Goals is to create a global partnership for human development. It is not possible to eradicate extreme poverty without working together. Working together using principles of fair trade is a challenge that governments need to be made aware of. Programs need to be firmly grounded in good development principles, encouraging a mentality of doing with rather than doing for.
Another more personal response is to consider our buying habits. Our awareness of the working and living conditions of garment workers rarely plays out in our own lives. Christian Kemp-Griffin, the Chief Executive Office of Edun Apparel — an ethical clothing company founded by U2’s Bono and his wife Ali Hewson — says that socially conscious clothing sells. "The ethical image has value. A company doesn't have to sacrifice its margins to sell its product because it's doing it ethically. It actually adds value for the consumer."
A fundamental shift needs to happen in the minds of Western governments. It takes specific action and focussed aid and development dollars to alleviate poverty, and the need is more urgent than ever.