Australian consumers buy on average 27kg of clothes per year. That 27kg is made up of seasonal based trends that fashion outlets tell us we HAVE to have or face the fact that you simply aren’t “trendy” or “fashion forward”.
But the price of style comes at a huge cost, and those paying for it the most are those who can’t even afford the own clothes on their back.
Consumer culture has seen a shift from “I need this” to “I want and deserve this.”
Underpinning consumer culture is the mass/overproduction of materials and the entire fashion industry’s war for the lowest price, inevitably cutting out smaller, ethical competitors and undervaluing those involved in the whole manufacturing process.
Overproduction is defined as the “production of more of a product, commodity, or substance than is wanted or needed.” And within the ‘fast-fashion’ retail industry, overproduction is at its core.
Fast fashion is based off a low price/high volume business model built upon a constant influx of new collections hitting our shops every 2-3 weeks. Some of the biggest fast fashion outlets in Australia include Zara, H&M and Topshop.
This means thousands of tonnes of clothes are being manufactured every day to meet trend/seasonal based customer requirements, which ultimately end up being disposed and contributing to landfill.
Consumers every day face relentless advertisement through magazines, television and social media that inundates them with new products that assure them by purchasing them, they too can look as happy and beautiful as the person in the ad.
Large retailers hold incredible power over the entire fashion market, taking micro-trends straight from the runway to their stores, setting the standard for smaller retailers to follow in order to remain competitive. Zara is a prime example of this.
It is consumer compulsivity partnered with overproduction that paves the way for pressing environmental issues of recycling, water consumption, landfill and greenhouse gas emissions from toxic chemicals.
What’s maybe even more alarming than overproduction, is how consumers are dealing with these micro trends, when they aren’t so fashionable anymore.
A report by YouGov illustrated a throwaway culture of consumers where 75 per cent of consumers reported that they had thrown away garments after just one year instead of trying to recycle, rework or give them to charities.
The report also found that out of those consumers, people within the baby boomer’s generation were less likely to throw away garments than millennials, instead opting to recycle them where millennials would re-sell them online. This points to a history of post-war hardship that the older generation has not since forgotten, and outlines the more lucrative economic environment that our younger generation is being brought up in.
The graph below outlines the reality of unused or unwanted garments as a result of overproduction in fast fashion.
Much of our throwaway fashion environment comes from us undervaluing our possessions. And why wouldn’t we when fast fashion aims to sell us clothes at such low prices?
Only a handful of brands operate solely inside Australia because the costs of production and manufacturing are astronomical in comparison to those offered in places like China, Indonesia and India.
Despite a shift to more ethical and transparent manufacturing in the last decade, a large percentage of workers in these offshore factories still operate under harsh and dangerous conditions.
This reality became hard to ignore five years ago when the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1134 workers and injuring over 2000 others. The incident was marked as one of the worst tragedies in the fast fashion industry. It was reported the 8-story building that housed several fast-fashion retailers collapsed due to unsafe building and fire safety conditions.
It’s estimated that there are over 5 million people in Bangladesh working in garment manufacturing, accounting for roughly 80 per cent of the country’s foreign trade.
Long hours, high production targets and pay as low as $90 AUD per month, not even making up half the amount it costs to live comfortably and provide for a family in Bangladesh. These workers are the epitome of undervalued.
In Australia, the value of our workers is determined and protected by the industry award. The national minimum wage is $18.29 for a full-time employee, barely enough to live comfortably in comparison to the high cost of living.
Last month, in their submission to the Fair Work Commission, the National Retail Association (NRA) stated that due to an unseasonal slight drop in profits (0.5 per cent) during the December and January months, they do not believe retail workers are deserving of an increase to the already low minimum wage.
Which basically translates to: it’s not the economy’s fault that people are spending less over Christmas and New Year, it’s the workers not working hard enough.
Fashion companies are also expert at undercutting – using every competitive edge to offer a lower price than a competitor. This effectively cuts out the competition and prevent new competitors from entering the market, creating a market monopoly.
Multinational brands like Kmart, Amazon and Target use their size to hold a dominant position in the market, undercutting smaller Australian brands and making it difficult to sell similar products of higher quality that was produced more ethically in comparison.
Undercutting also prevents consumers from make informed decisions about a product knowing where it was made, the manufacturing conditions and its overall quality.
Following the Rana Plaza disaster, people from the UK, the US and Australia have called on their governments and policy-makers to take accountability for the past injustices and deaths at the hand of the fashion industry. By introducing better laws that protect the underrepresented and disadvantaged workers in offshore factories and demanding brands to be more transparent in their manufacturing process.
Australian human rights activists are pushing for the establishment of a modern slavery act, similar to that of the UK’s, but has stronger reporting requirements of retailers on the steps they’re taking each year towards a more ethical and sustainable future. The details of the law are currently being discussed.
And as a consumer, there’s things you can do too!
Within movements like Fashion Revolution Week consumers are encouraged to ask retailers and brands #whomademyclothes in an attempt to make the industry more sustainable and economically friendly. Making informed decisions when purchasing and trying to buy clothing from ethical fashion brands, however costly at the time, will make up for it in quality, versatility and will last the test of time.
Brands With A Social Conscious
US Brand Everlane is an advocate for ethical and transparent manufacturing and labelled this initiative as “Radical Transparency”.
Manufacturing transparency is the process of sharing the production costs associated with an item; from materials to labour, to shipping, to taxes and the profit margin.
Their cost breakdown below reveals the production costs for their Modern Loafer:
Everlane goes one step further by researching ethical manufacturing locations and performing safety and conditions tests where the location must meet a minimum of 90 per cent before proceeding with manufacturing.
Patagonia is an American based outdoor wear label that creates economically sustainable products from recycled materials, meaning there’s little to no waste. Their t-shirts for example state that they’re made from 4.8 plastic bottles.
Beginning as an activewear label, the brand has since gained popularity worldwide and is stocked in selected stores in Australia for everyday use.
The brand has a strong mission statement that focuses on rethink, reuse and recycle, offering customers free repairs and the ability to recycle unwanted items.
The brand is also an advocate for social change, campaigning for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef from coal mining and for Bear Ears canyons in Utah from US President Donald Trump’s mission to shrink them and make way for more mining.
The White T-Shirt Company
The Danish company focuses on creating a classic, basic products that will last the test of time. The brand uses organic cotton and a design that can be personally tailored to each customer.
Like Patagonia and Everlane, the brand is transparent about their manufacturing and the materials used, offering a breakdown of each t-shirt.
The White T-Shirt Company is also an advocate for social change, being involved in the fight for gender equality and the end to plastic pollution.