From West to Bangladesh: can fashion be ethical?

Words by Tess Astle
Art by Angharad Neal-Williams

My outfit is a lot better travelled than I’ll ever be. My top grew up in Indonesia, my jeans were flown in from Bangladesh and my shoes were raised in Vietnam.

Multicultural outfits are becoming more and more common with clothing manufacturing diversifying globally.

Fashion has been opened to the world – online shopping means buying from Japan is just as easy as your local shopping centre (parcel tracking aside). The Internet is a constant stream of trends and sales. I’d love to say that fashion labels found a way to compete in a global market without taking advantage of the developing world, but we all know that’s not true.

The globalised fashion industry was supposed to be a win-win situation. The richer nations were looking at cheaper goods and the poorer nations were looking a mass employment with better conditions. In reality, globalisation has managed to further exploit workers as companies continue to look for new, cheaper countries and for ways to cut corners. For something new and fun, the fashion brands continue to keep production costs unethically low in order to compete with competitive pricing.

As China, the manufacturing capital of the world, begins upping their minimum wage, countries are looking further afield for their clothing imports. Although it still produces a heap of clothing for Australia, other countries can offer the same labour for less. Seems like a strange world when paying people about four bucks an hour is over budget.

Unfortunately, many countries are too readily replacing China’s manufacturing. Bangladesh and Vietnam are the two major countries offering the developed world a chance to pay less for more. Bangladesh’s textile industry employs over three million people which could be great, if these people were at least paid more than four dollars a day. In case it wasn’t bleak enough, Bangladesh still struggles to maintain factory regulation, meaning thousands of people are exposed to dangerous chemical everyday. The fashion industry is one of the major industries contributing and supporting modern slavery practices. At this point, we should all be wondering if that polka-dotted blazer from Zara is worth it.

It gets even worse when you think of a brand like H&M. The global corporation has a measly annual income of about 20 billion dollars and yet claims they’re not capable of paying workers fair wages. For them, maintaining their two dollar T-shirt troves is worth mass impoverishment. That makes total sense – good call H&M.

I mean, I don’t want to keep pilling on the bad news, but unfortunately there is little to love about the global fashion industry. Fast fashion is one of the most harmful industries in the world. Get ready for some harsh truths: 80 billion pieces of clothing are consumed every year; one pair of jeans needs about 7,000 litres of water to make and most clothes take up to 200 years to break down properly. It’s not even one of those nice situations where Australia can feel less guilty than most countries, because as of 2018 Australia is the second worst consumer of clothes.

Just to give you a glimpse into what goes into making our clothes, let me explain the process of a white T-shirt. It starts its life on a farm where (exploited) farmers plant and tend to the cotton crop. The cotton needed for your T-shirt takes about 10,000 litres of water to produce. Next up, your lil guy is hand delivered (likely by a child worker) into a ginning machine, which separates the cotton fibres from the seed. After being cleaned and bailed up your cotton is ready for step three. Cotton is then spun into twine so that it can be knitted into a fabric. The fabric is then dyed and cut into sewing patterns by women working excessive hours under awful conditions. Your T-shirt is then sewn together by a machine or an underpaid worker. Here is where you come in, you walk into a shop and pick up this shirt up and only have to pay seven dollars. It’s amazing how complicated the simplest thing can be to make.

Fashion leaves a long and winding trail of destruction behind it.  We, as a species, just can’t stop wanting new stuff faster. Consumers and brands have worked together to create an industry of murky ethics and shameful secrets. Globalised fashion may have been paved with good intentions, but so was hell (bit dramatic? Sadly, not for some).

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