Reversing fast fashion: The slow revolution of ethical clothing

by Vomle Springford / 23 April, 2018
garment factory protest

Relatives of Bangladeshi workers who lost their lives in the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster protest for better working conditions. Photo/Getty.

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This week marks the fifth anniversary of the horrifying Rana Plaza building collapse which killed 1138 garment workers in Bangladesh, and highlighted unsafe working conditions, sweatshops, and unfair wages in the fashion industry.

It’s also Fashion Revolution Week (FRW), which began in response to the incident and demands greater transparency in the fashion supply chain and encourages consumers to ask brands who made their clothes. And while many New Zealand brands are being more open about their production processes, there’s still a lot of work to be done, according to the 2018 Ethical Fashion Guide by Tearfund.

Supply chains are complicated: A t-shirt bought in New Zealand may be made from Indian cotton, processed in Bangladesh, sewn in China and distributed from Australia.

Despite an increase in the number of companies who can name their direct suppliers, only seven percent know where their raw materials come from and only 11 percent pay living wages to workers in their supply chains. Around the world, companies scored a C+ grade, on average.

An Outliv bag. Photo/Sam Cameron Photography.

Tearfund CEO, Ian McInnes, says the guide asks companies to report on their labour rights management practices and gives consumers the power to make ethical choices. “Too often we see the end product. We don’t see the exploitation of millions of garment factory workers who endure 12 to 14 hour days without breaks just to make the clothes we wear.”

Amy Conlon, the designer behind New Zealand brand Outliv, a new ethically minded bag company, says change is happening but worries that consumers are still unconcerned about the effects of fast fashion on the environment and garment factory workers.

“I think sometimes people don’t know how to be part of a fashion revolution or what it means but it is important to all of us… by supporting ethical brands, you’re supporting the environment and you’re valuing people, ensuring that everyone is treated fairly and has a living wage.”

Her bags, which are made in Tauranga, are created out of recycled leather and denim fabric, preventing clothes going to landfill.  

“The whole concept behind the brand is that when you buy something you donate to the Sea Cleaners organisation which helps to clean up the harbours around Auckland and up north. To make new leather and denim fabrics really pollutes the rivers, seas and oceans.”

Conlon, who has worked in the fashion industry for over 20 years, was at a loose end after returning home from London and released the brand this year after almost two years of development.

“I spent some time at Melbourne Spring Fashion Week and went to some ethical discussions and seminars, and all of sudden it clicked into place. I've always been really big on recycling, second-hand clothing, vintage fashion and things like that. It just made so much sense for me to do something strongly ethical.”

She says the biggest challenge in creating ethically produced fashion is finding machinists in New Zealand that are prepared to make a product that is different every single time and is still made to a high-quality standard.

Another challenge, for the consumer, is price. Conlon says having it made locally does mean it’s going to be more expensive but it is worth it to support local industries. There are also laybuy options and other ways to purchase now too, she says. WellMade Clothes, an online shop of ethical brands like Kowtow, offers Afterpay, for example.

As part of FRW, Conlon is holding a showcase of ethical brands at Crave cafe in Morningside, Auckland. “Part of the reason I wanted to do it is to form a bit of network for ethically minded brands or even brands that want to start making that step towards being more ethical or more conscious of their product.”

There will be nine brands showing, including Maggie Marilyn, an internationally acclaimed high fashion clothing range and Mushama & Me, Oki for All, Bridge the Gap Project, Luu Studio, Selector Clothing, Shereena Noelle, The Loyal Workshop and Outliv.

“It’s a chance for people to meet the face behind the brands, to look at the products, to ask questions.”

‘Join the Fashion Revolution’ takes place Tue, 24 April, 6.30-9pm, at Crave, 6 Morningside Drive, Morningside. There are also more events taking place around New Zealand for Fashion Revolution Week, click here for more details.

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