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Waste more, want more

Our collective hunger for cheap clothing is having an immense, even absurd, impact on our planet, as episode three of the ABC’s War on Waste recently reminded us. But understanding how to be ethically clothed can feel intractably complex. Environmental and social concerns weave together in questions like who grows and harvests the raw materials that make our clothing? How resource-heavy is it to produce these materials? How are synthetic materials created and how much waste (and what type) does it produce? Who makes our clothing? What conditions are they working under, and are they being paid fairly? How do we dispose of clothing items once they’re no longer wearable? The questions go on. It’s enough to make us throw up our hands and head straight for the op shop.

In a country where 200 000 tonnes of clothing waste go to landfill each year, the questions won’t go away. How might we all be well-clothed without harming our planet or one another? What does an ethical and sustainable Australian fashion industry look like? Might it even be possible for clothing production to become a regenerative contributor to the environment and society?

Since 2013, Baptist World Aid has rendered a mighty service to those concerned about ethical fashion with their annual Ethical Fashion Report. Appraising 41 companies in 2013, their report now looks at the practices of around 120 companies (representing 581 brands) and rates them according to their ethics rubric. The focus is on human rights, particularly in terms of employment practices and supply chain transparency. But the Report’s manifesto for ethical fashion is holistic, recognising that caring for people means caring for the planet, and vice versa.

This year, the report asks what has (and hasn’t) changed since the first report in 2013. The answer? Well, policies on paper have changed. Consumer demand for transparency has been heard by many companies. Of the 25 companies surveyed in both 2013 and 2022, 84 per cent now have a Code of Conduct ‘aligned to international best practice standards on workers’ rights’ — up from 28 per cent in 2013. Accountability matters. Additionally, traceability throughout the process of production has improved. Many companies have significantly improved their rating, including Kmart, Lacoste, David Jones, Lululemon and VF Corp (which includes brands such as The North Face, Vans and Timberland).

But have these changes translated into real-life impact for the people who sew our garments? Not necessarily. While the Report cites ‘remarkable advancement in tracing, transparency and policies’, it pulls no punches in declaring that ‘outcomes for workers have failed to progress’. Only one company in 2013 ‘could guarantee payment of living wages for their Final Stage garment workers’. Of the companies surveyed in 2022, 84 per cent could give no evidence that factories involved in final stage garment production were paying living wages to their workers. How is this acceptable? While some companies have ‘published a commitment to long-term payment of living wages’, the Report states that ‘we’re yet to see if these commitments will be little more than empty promises’.

Environmental ethics are also central to fast fashion industry concerns. Lucianne Tonti’s book is a valuable resource for those wanting to better understand fibre production processes and the resources required for making our clothing. The statistics Tonti cites on textile wastage and environmental degradation are staggering: globally, ‘one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every second’; 98 million tonnes of non-renewable resources are used by the textiles industry each year; and it can take 7500 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans. As exploitative as fast fashion can be of its workers, this behemoth is astoundingly exploitative of the earth.

But Tonti also canvasses many amazing initiatives where the production of high-quality clothing is not just environmentally sustainable but is actively regenerative (see Patagonia and Fibrevolution, for example). She also recognises the crucial importance of changing consumer behaviour and attitudes. ‘The best thing you can do for the environment,’ she says, ‘is to purchase less clothing, and to make sure every purchase is an investment … look for beautiful, quality garments made from natural fibres.’ For Tonti, less is more.


'With the establishment of the Seamless initiative, and with significant pockets of industry deeply committed to change, there is certainly good reason to hope that better ways of clothing ourselves are on the horizon.'


This approach takes discipline and individual commitment. Such goodwill in our community is not to be underestimated, but what of the role of industry and government? After all, consumers need good options to make good choices.

Cue the Australian Fashion Council. They’re the representative industry body for the fashion and clothing industry in Australia, and they’ve just launched ‘Seamless’: an initiative that aims to guide nothing less than ‘a just transition of the Australian clothing industry to circularity by 2030’. 

Danielle Kent, Project Director of Seamless, wants the Australian fashion industry to become pro-active in the fight for an ethical and sustainable clothing industry. And, she points out, international changes are putting pressure on the Australian fashion industry to get up to speed when it comes to responsible stewardship of textiles — otherwise, ‘we could be seriously disadvantaged in terms of our trade and export abilities,’ Kent warns. 

Because the AFC is a representative body for the fashion industry, this is an interesting dynamic — the push for change is not coming from a lobby group external to the fashion industry but is coming from within. Seamless aims to have stakeholders working together in a functional, healthy ecosystem: the Product Stewardship Organisation (PSO) delivering Seamless will work with clothing stewards (brands and retailers), reuse operators, manufacturers and re-manufacturers, recyclers, industry experts and academia, government and citizens, to make clothing circularity a reality — through design, production, market, and end-of-life stages. Already, there are six key foundation members driving the initiative: Big W, David Jones, Lorna Jane, Rip Curl, R.M. Williams and The Iconic. This initiative could completely transform the way Australia makes, wears and disposes of its clothing.

The project is in its early stages, but Kent is unapologetic about its lofty intent. ‘It’s very ambitious — but we wanted to be ambitious,’ she explains. ‘Let’s not tweak the system … let’s actually see what it would take to be a circular economy by 2030 and see how far we get’. The AFC is leading by example, embracing the possibility of transforming  a whole industry. 

But is fast fashion so bad? We might well ask whether it’s actually a good thing that cheap clothing is available to everyone. Here, the ‘Sam Vimes Boots Theory’ gives us pause for thought. Sam Vimes, a protagonist in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, points out in Men at Arms that those with less cash are constrained to buying cheaper, crappier products which become obsolete much sooner than expensive, higher quality products. Over time, the constant need to replace those cheap products means those with low capital are caught in a poverty cycle — they end up paying more in the long run than those who can afford to purchase high quality, long-lasting goods to begin with. It’s planned obsolescence writ-large, and it takes advantage of the most vulnerable.

Tonti is sympathetic when it comes to cost-of-living pressures. ‘But,’ she counters, ‘overconsumption of cheap clothing is not driven by people who don’t have disposable income. It’s driven by people who are buying hundreds of cheap garments a year, most of which they will never wear.’ The more we waste, the more we seem to want.

The current state of the global fast-fashion industry leaves much to be desired — but things have come a long way since 2013. With the establishment of the Seamless initiative, and with significant pockets of industry deeply committed to change, there is certainly good reason to hope that better ways of clothing ourselves are on the horizon. In the meantime, I’m off to the op shop … 




Sarah Bacaller is a writer, researcher and audiobook producer from Melbourne. 

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration.

Topic tags: Sarah Bacaller, Ethical Fashion, Sustainable, Waste, Environment, Textiles



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