I was recently shopping for a nice evening dress in David Jones, looking through the Australian designers. Manning Cartell, Camilla & Marc, Bianca Spender, Scanlan Theodore, Viktoria & Woods – the usual suspects for that sort of thing.

I had been searching for a few weeks online and in store so I was pretty ready to buy a dress. I walked through the designers avoiding the ones I knew were made offshore, and came across a nice dress in Camilla & Marc.

I picked it up and went to try it on in the normal change rooms, when a salesman (who turned out to be a personal shopper/stylist for the store) saw me and quickly swept my partner and I into David Jones’ private shopping room. I tried on the dress and it looked great.

I told him how I was shopping for an Australian-made dress so this one was perfect, and I bought the dress. It wasn’t until I got home later that day that I realised I didn’t actually check the garment tag. Was it made in Australia? I rushed into my room and pulled the dress out of its secure garment bag and checked the tag. Made in China.

Ahhh! For SOME reason, my brain had filed this brand as Australian made. Maybe because it was next to Manning Cartell? I don’t know, but my stomach dropped. I went to the C&M website to see if I could reassure myself that they were committed to ethical production (even if it was offshore), but they had nothing on their website about production at all. Maybe the clothes just magically appear in the store? I think not.

I tried reaching out to them on social and email and eventually I got a fluffy response pretty much saying they have made zero commitments to producing sustainably. So I took the dress back.

But it got me thinking about how many people must get into that scenario and wonder, is Chinese production ok? What about Thailand? Vietnam? Fiji? Does offshore production always = unsustainable?

It got me thinking about how many people must get into that scenario and wonder, is Chinese production ok?

Around about the same time I ran into a friend who works in the fashion industry. Suzi (not her real name) runs a fashion accelerator business and had recently been in China meeting with various manufacturers and factories to suss them out for potential clients/designers. She’s well aware of the issues in the industry so she was only meeting with factories that she knew were certified by various accreditors for ethical production and providing safe working conditions.

She explained to me her experience of visiting one of the factories they were planning to use. All was looking good, and the manager of the factory told her guide that they wanted to take her to the place where they do their screen printing. She obliged and off they went. 

As the story goes, she ended up being led down a dark alley, through a door which she says looked like it had more money poured into it than the workshop itself, to a tiny room with a ceiling so low she couldn’t stand straight. She said the smell of toxins and chemicals was so strong her eyes immediately stung. And the employees weren’t wearing any protective gear. The door was locked, and it was clear that that was to keep the staff there.

For her, it was clear that they were no longer using this supplier, but for the supplier, these conditions were perfectly normal. And this is a supplier that otherwise, was all above board.

So for brands producing offshore, you can see how easily it can get out of their hands. And for consumers, just no way to tell whether the clothes are made in good conditions or not.

This experience is from China, a country that still produces a lot of the world’s garments and around 60% of the world’s shoes. But China is far from the worst of the countries producing garments in poor working conditions.

In fact, a lot of brands are moving their production to other South-East Asian countries where the minimum wages are lower and working conditions are even worse, like Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.

And unfortunately, unlike Australia or other developed countries where minimum wages are enough to live on, the same cannot be said in the developing countries tasked with producing the world’s garments.

The wage for garment factory workers in Indonesia is as low as US$102 per month according to Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC). While the minimum wage in Vietnam has recently risen to US$166 per month. 

A ‘living wage’ in Bangladesh (as calculated by Global Living Wage Coalition)  is at least $248 per month, while the existing monthly minimum wage is $87- almost three times below the estimated living wage – keeping the women who make our clothes in poverty.

So unless brands are specifically seeking out factories that are making efforts to pull their staff out of poverty, paying them a living wage, and providing them with the same benefits you and I would expect from our employers, they’re fuelling a fire they may never be able to put out.

But there is hope.

Lots of brands are making measurable efforts at finding and partnering with offshore suppliers to produce their garments who are committed to ethical and sustainable production.

There are also a number of industry standards and watchdogs who are keeping an eye on the producers and calling out those who don’t abide by the new standards of ethical production.

But brands have to make a serious commitment to this. If a brand that does not claim and commit to paying a living wage to their staff members, it most likely isn’t. So it’s time we made the decision who we support.

What does a serious commitment to social sustainability look like?

Stella McCartney‘s commitment to sustainability goes beyond the human element, but on that topic alone the brand goes in depth, calling out the various groups and associations with which their brand is accredited to ensure ethical production.

Smaller brands are making huge efforts by keeping their production onshore or working with small-scale factories or family-owned businesses in developing countries to produce the goods.

Just be aware. Check out the brands you want to buy from. If they have no information about their production on their website or in their comms, they’ve most likely got something to hide.

Let’s support the brands that are making a difference to the lives of many and the planet we’ve got to live on.

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About Author

Brittanie is the founder of Britt's List, and an advocate for sustainable and Australian fashion. When she's not reviewing brands, Britt can be found hiking, blogging and practicing yoga, or more likely, eating cheese and drinking boutique gin.

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