Even shoppers with the best intentions can be confused by ethical fashion

As part of a larger research project on Modern Slavery, our recent Research looked at the impact that modern slavery laws had on consumer awareness regarding ethical fashion.

We conducted a survey of over 100 participants and interviewed 22 additional people via Zoom in July and August 2020. Although they were well-informed about the larger issues, they said they had difficulty knowing what products or services were truly ethical and sustainable when they purchased them.

We are releasing a report today by Oxfam, which shows that big Australian fashion companies perpetuate worker inequality and poverty, especially among women, through unethical business practices.

Modern slavery

In 2018, Australia became one of the few countries with a legislative requirement to report on modern slavery. The Act mandates that large companies report on their supply chains. The Act could also serve to reassure customers about the origins of their clothing. Or does it?

The Australian modern slavery laws apply to workers in the global fashion industry, including these Indonesian seamstresses. Rio Lecatompessy/UnsplashCC BY

Our research participants were overwhelmed by the amount of information they had to find and interpret about their clothing’s origin, production and who made it. One interviewee stated:

I’m really confused because I think [Japanese Megastore] Uniqlo has a lot of great basics, and they’re often made from good materials, like linen, but I also know they’re not that good, not sustainable, not ethical… It’s hard.

To be “conscious consumers”, you need to know about accreditation and certification systems. You also need to stay current with ethical shopping guidelines.

Participants also acknowledged that not everyone has the time, energy, or resources to make informed choices.

Wary of spin

The corporate marketing of sustainability and ethical production was viewed with skepticism by many participants. The renewed popularity of vintage and secondhand fashion suggests that some consumers are reducing confusion by not buying anything new. Our shoppers said that they preferred local fashion labels like Arnsdorf, and online marketplaces like Well Made Clothing to larger corporate entities.

Big fashion retailers are promoting products that meet sustainable or ethical standards. Examples include David Jones’ Made with Mind collection, Iconic’s Carefully Edit and Kmart’s partnership with Better Cotton Initiative.

Few participants knew about the Australian Modern Slavery Act. Many participants believed that “modern slavery”, as used in the Act, only referred to garment workers in Australia and not “off-shore” production. The Act actually requires Australian businesses reporting on the risks of modern slavery in their global and domestic operations.

Three good sources of information for conscious shoppers:

Ethical Clothing Australia provides ethical certification for Australian-manufactured fashion

* The Baptist World Aid Fashion Report includes ranking of fashion brands’ responses to COVID-19

Oxfam publishes a Naughty List every year. Oxfam released a new report and company tracker in order to demonstrate how large brands and factories are rated when it comes to paying a living wage for their workers — mainly women. Poor purchasing practices include aggressive price negotiations, inaccurate forecasting, short lead time and last-minute orders changes.

Oxfam discovered that H&M Group scored relatively well when rated by factories. Cotton On, Inditex, Zara and Myer were all close behind Big W, Kmart, and Target Australia. The results of the survey show that The Just Group and Mosaic brands are rated as the worst performing factories by factories.

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