This tale involves a wee confession. I'm ashamed to admit that when it comes to clothes I do suffer from a bit of brand snobbery. My snobbery is directed at big chain clothes outlets like Target, K-Mart and (shudder) Big W. While I will totally admit to shopping in at least one of these stores occasionally (Tarjay is the only store that stocks kids clothes in my big girls' size in our town apart from the op shops) I try to avoid them as much as possible. Why? Honestly, I do worry about how they manage to produce such cheap clothes. "How can that be possible without someone along the chain of production being ripped off, underpaid or even in slave conditions?" I ask myself. Seriously, I don't want my kids wearing clothes that were made under slave conditions where the cotton was harvested by kids their own ages. So when I do shop there, I feel a huge sense of consumer guilt in relation to the cheap prices and my imagination runs wild.
This is a tale of where my snobbery comes undone and bites me on the bum.
On our recent holiday to South Australia, Lily ran out of clothes. Someone hadn't quite packed enough warm gear. So after trying the op shops to no avail we popped into Target to pick up a few pieces. As I walked in the door I saw an almost identical pair of pants/trousers to the ones I was at that moment. This pair were my current favourite and I'd recently purchased them at a local boutique store. The pants in Target were cheap, dirt cheap; under $20. My pair was about $100. Feeling a little ripped off, I consoled myself by thinking about what seemed to me the obvious production chain.
And then last week, the Australian Ethical Fashion Report was released. I read it. In fact, I read the whole report, rather than just the condensed report card. And guess what? Target got a B- on the report but the company who made my pants, F. Crap. Sure, they got an F because they didn't respond, but that in itself is pretty telling. Three different forms of contact; phone call, email and written letter, and no response? Seriously, what does that suggest? And as for Target? They actually include a whole heap of information in their website about their increased endeavours to source ethically.
The lesson learn from this report is that the price of the garment is absolutely no reflection of the ethics of a company. And you know, I know this but... there's still that niggling question in the back of my mind. And as the report shows, it's really only a handful of Australians, if that, who DO actually pay a living wage. This is quite different to the minimum wage of a country, this is the wage which makes it possible to survive. Regardless, I shall work hard to break my prejudice down further, as some of the worst performing companies are certainly those who charge the most!
In the wake of all this, it's Fashion Revolution Day today. A day when we're invited to show our labels and challenge the brands who made our clothes with the question "who made my clothes?" The hope is that this world-wide movement will encourage clothing brands to be more responsible for the people and the environment that their business exploits.
As crafters, it's easy to be snug and say, "I'm ok. I made my clothes" and give ourselves a tick. But how much do we know about the process and the journey of the raw materials that make up our supplies. Sure we know that that we made our clothes but do you know where your knitting needles, your sewing machine, your crochet hooks, and even your yarn and fabric were produced? What about the raw materials that make up those supplies; the cotton, the wool, the nickel, the steel?
One of the startling things that came out of the Ethical Fashion Report, was that the over-whelming majority of brands DID NOT know the source of their cotton. That means they didn't know the conditions it was grown in. They didn't know the conditions of those workers; whether they were underpaid, child workers or even slaves. There are more slaves in the world (approximately 30 million) than there are Australians, and quite a few of these slaves are FORCED to work in such industries. I don't know about you but I find it unfathomable that a situation like that can still exist.
These questions ring true for fabric and yarn manufacturers. In terms of yarn, there is a great deal of yarn that is processed in China. Under what conditions? Are these workers well paid? Are environmental concerns considered in the scouring (a very water intensive part of the production) and yarn dyeing process? What chemicals are used? How safe are these? This is particularly relevant to superwash yarns, where a virtual cocktail of nasty stuff is used for the convenience of being able to throw something in the washing machine. I honestly don't know what the answers are or even where to start asking, but these are questions that I would like to know the answer to. I think these are the questions that we NEED to be asking of our industry's yarn producers.
I'd love to know your thoughts on this. Are these concerns something you've thought about? How do you feel about this topic? Does it affect your buying habits?