Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large of Healthy Food Guide.

Paying the price for fast fashion: How to become an ethical shopper

Kiwis spend more than $5 billion a year on clothes but behind the glamour lurks an underworld. Niki Bezzant explores how to opt out of fast fashion.
"Fast fashion" is a relatively recent phenomenon. Photo / 123RF
"Fast fashion" is a relatively recent phenomenon. Photo / 123RF

A couple of years ago I saw a film that changed my life.

Andrew Morgan's documentary The True Cost is a gritty and clear-eyed look inside today's world of fast ­fashion - at the ugly side of the ­pretty retail world where new ranges appear in stores almost weekly and we can pick up a T-shirt for under $10.

The film explores the reality of how that T-shirt can be so cheap - the exploitation of workers, the degradation of the environment, the complicity of governments. And what happens at the other end: where the clothes that we throw away end up.

It stopped me in my tracks. I love fashion and style, have ­always been a shopper. ­Although I love vintage and come from a family of avid op-shoppers, I do my share of chain-store shopping, too.

Suddenly I felt I was part of a broken, harmful and unsustainable system. It made me seriously examine the way I buy and wear clothes.

I am not alone. A growing movement of people are concerned about where clothes come from and who, ultimately, pays the price for cheap garments. People are seeking more sustainable ways to get dressed.

Kiwis love to buy clothes. We spend $5.3 billion a year on them, according to industry website Fashion United.

And clothes are getting cheaper. In 1974, an average household spent $9 of every $100 on ­apparel. In 2013 it was just $2.80. And yet we own more than ever.

So how did we get here? In their history of the New Zealand fashion industry, The Dress ­Circle, Lucy Hammonds, ­Douglas Lloyd ­Jenkins and Claire Regnault paint a ­portrait of 1940s and 50s New ­Zealand where most women sewed a fair proportion of their ­wardrobe; and where choosing a garment from many racks in a store was not an everyday experience.

"A minimal selection of clothes, often only a single garment, was shown in a display window," writes Jenkins of a typical 1940s department store.

"Rather than browsing racks, prospective clients were invited to sit comfortably while the season's range was paraded in front of them, using house models or mannequins. The selected dress would then be made to measure for the ­client."

From these humble beginnings, a local fashion industry grew and ready-to-wear fashion emerged.

But until the 1990s, there wasn't much cheap, fashionable clothing around. As a teenager in Whang­arei in the 80s, if I wanted something trendy and affordable, I made it. I worked in a fabric shop on Saturday mornings and would serve school-friends and their mothers shopping for fabric and patterns.

Things changed in the 1990s. ­Apparel import tariffs were lifted in the early 90s, and imported garments flooded into the country. At some point, buying a garment became cheaper than making it.

The price is usually paid in two ­areas: people and the environment. Photo / 123RF
The price is usually paid in two ­areas: people and the environment. Photo / 123RF

Cheap - if not fast - fashion had arrived. Where once nearly all clothing bought by New Zealanders would have been made here, now that's a rarity.

"Fast fashion" is a relatively recent phenomenon. It's just one part of the industry, but represents a huge shift in the way we buy clothes.

'I think back to when I was a teenager and what I'd pay for a pair of jeans," says Sherilyn Catchpole, designer and owner of ­local label State of Grace. "The prices haven't really changed much in all that time. Sometimes I'll look at a $30 [chain store] dress and think - how do they cost it out?"

Catchpole sees a different mindset in consumers of different age groups. "People who are a bit older appreciate that less is more ... they'll buy one garment and love it and wear it for several seasons. The younger generation have been brought up differently.

"Their wardrobes are full of those cheap $30 mall dresses they'll wear once or twice".

State of Grace is one of a handful of labels manufactured locally - very locally, in this case, with its small runs all made in Auckland.

Catchpole made a deliberate ­decision to stay small. She says it's more enjoyable, and she doesn't have to compromise and start ­looking to offshore manufacturers. The formula has kept the business thriving 25 years.

Still, she says, it's harder doing business than in the past. "There's so much choice now, so much out there. And there are the chain stores. There is too much cheap stuff".

Catchpole thinks that cheapness brings a different attitude towards what we wear. We're more inclined to think of our clothes as disposable.

But what is wrong with that cheap dress?

Isn't it great to be able to pick up a new outfit for less than what we'd spend on dinner?

"Fast fashion isn't free," says UK journalist Lucy Siegle, who writes about sustainability in fashion. "Someone, somewhere is paying."

The price is usually paid in two ­areas: people and the environment.

The garment industry is one of the most polluting in the world, from agriculture through to manufacture and final use.

The collapsed clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where 1134 workers died in April 2013. Photo / AP
The collapsed clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where 1134 workers died in April 2013. Photo / AP

Environmental impacts range from Indian waterways polluted by chromium, causing widespread liver disease, to the ­other end of the chain, where countries like Haiti are dumping grounds for mountains of discarded clothing from Western nations.

Then there is the human cost.

The global garment industry ­employs 75 million people.

Most - about 80 per cent - are women. And most are not paid enough to cover the basics of life. In Bangladesh 4 million garment ­workers are paid the minimum wage of $4.30 a day. They're the lowest-paid workers in the world.

In Cambodia, when Phnom Penh garment workers protested for an ­increase of the minimum wage to $230 a month in 2014, they were fired on by police with live ­ammunition and several were killed.

Four years ago last week the Rana Plaza - a building ­housing thousands of garment workers making clothes for some of the best-known brands in the world - collapsed, killing 1134 people and injuring 2500.

It was the fourth-largest industrial accident in history.

That event was a tipping point for many people. It inspired UK hat ­designer Carry Somers to start the global movement Fashion ­Revolution, aimed at encouraging ethics, ­sustainability and trans­parency in the fashion supply chain.

Fashion Revolution Week, which ends today, spans 93 countries and includes over 1500 events around the world. The campaign is getting increasing engagement from brands, who they encourage to be ­transparent about supply chains.

A big focus for Fashion Revolution is a drive for garment workers to be paid a living wage, which they say would increase prices by 5 per cent; just $1.45 on top of the price of a $29 shirt.

Melinda Tually from Fashion Revolution.
Melinda Tually from Fashion Revolution.

Fashion Revolution's New Zealand co-ordinator, Melinda ­Tually, says the campaign is not about ­attacking or boycotting brands.

Instead, she says, the whole fast fashion system needs a rethink.

"Brands need to find other ways to make money, rather than the unsustainable cycle of constantly dumping low-quality clothes and we need to slow down our purchasing ­behaviour, and engage with an ­alternative system."

In Tually's ideal world, fashion brands would make sure workers who made their clothes were paid a living wage, and they'd tell us about it. Consumers would buy less but better, and treasure their clothes, handing them down to the next generation.

And brands would take a product stewardship role, taking responsibility for a garment's life cycle from when it sells to where it ends up.

This is already starting to happen.

Tually points to brands like Nudie Jeans and Patagonia, which have in-store mending services and take-back schemes where you can return garments for recycling at the end of their lives.

Brands are taking action on ­transparency, too.

In response to pressure, some are publishing information on their supply chains, even providing lists of the factories they use on their websites.

Last week, Baptist World Aid ­released its 2017 Ethical Fashion ­Report, ranking companies from A to F based on criteria including what they pay staff and how supply chain workers are treated.

Overall, the 12 New Zealand-owned companies ­featured in the report scored a median B-. The internat­ional average for companies was C+.

An accompanying guide for Kiwi shoppers is being launched by Tearfund New Zealand to help people "vote against exploitation with their wallet".

It shows 242 brands available here and their associated rankings, based on the levels of visibility and ­transparency across the supply chain with regards to worker rights, policies and practices.

Positive things are happening but the power still rests in the hands and wallets of consumers, says Tually.

As for me, I have to think hard to remember the last new garment I bought. My wardrobe is now made up of mostly vintage clothes, ­locally made items and things I made, having revived my teenage sewing skills.

And there are pieces from fast fashion stores, too, from my chain-store shopping days. I keep these and wear them to honour the many hands that went into their making.

Become an ethical shopper

• Be curious. Ask your favourite brands where their clothes were made, and by whom. Check their websites for social responsibility, ethical buying and environmental policies.

• Consider how you'll wear new garments before you buy. Try to commit to wearing a garment at least 30 times. Search #30wears for inspiration.

• Buy less but better. Think quality not quantity. Consider buying locally made.

• Look after the clothes you own. Follow the care instructions on the labels. Mend damaged garments.

• Think carefully about throwing things away. Only 10 per cent of donated clothing ends up being sold.

Can you upcycle the garment? Can you keep wearing it?

• Consider vintage and second-hand shopping. It's a way of building your own unique style in a sustainable way.

• Try sewing your own clothes. It's a good way to understand what goes into a garment and how it is made.

• Remember, every garment you buy has been touched by human hands. If you feel like something is too cheap, there is a good chance that someone has suffered along the line to produce it.

Find out more:

• For practical shopping advice, try: goodonyou.eco; projectjust.com; and notmystyle.org

• For details on how to change the system, go to: fashionrevolution.org

• For reports on Kiwi companies, go to: baptistworldaid.org.au and tearfund.org.nz/ethicalfashionguide

- Herald on Sunday

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