Adrienne Kohler embarks on an odyssey to buy ethical clothes, but finds many wonder who the ‘mad woman’ is.

The looks ranged from blank disinterest to total confusion at the woman asking odd questions. In one case, there was outright hostility.

"Why do you want this information? And what will you do with it?" demanded the put-out shop assistant.

These were the less than encouraging results of my Auckland quest to see how easy it is to shop ethically.

Journalist Adrienne Kohler.
Journalist Adrienne Kohler.

I specifically targeted New Zealand retailers but of the dozen I visited on Queen St on a cold Saturday only two - Kathmandu and Icebreaker - had staff who could offer any information on their clothing supply chains.

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They were delighted someone had asked them and they could show with pride how well their brands were tracked.

The rest, although generally polite and concerned, shrugged their shoulders and could only suggest

I contact their head offices or perhaps the information was on the website?

Most knew only that their clothes came from China mainly. Not one had received training about their supply chains.

On checking their websites, some companies had piecemeal information but little that was comprehensive.

New Zealanders are in love with fashion. In 2000 we spent $1.8 billion on clothing, footwear and personal accessories, acccording to Statistics New Zealand.

Ten years later that had jumped to $3.1b. Last year it was up to more than $3.3b.
And that only tells part of the story - the figures do not include fashion bought in department stores or online. According to Nielsen figures we spent about $1.5b on clothes and footwear online in 2013.

Despite how deep we're willing to dig in our pockets we know very little about who made those pockets.

A global ethical fashion report - that grades clothing companies from A to F based on their policies, supply chain traceability, monitoring methods and workers' rights - is to include New Zealand retailers for the first time.

But that partly depends on the companies' co-operation.

Baptist World Aid, which produces the report, says it has found companies themselves often don't know who is supplying fabrics and whether it is an ethical process.

In a world in which we are becoming increasingly conscious of our consumer choices - and the far-reaching impact they have - buying ethical garments in the days of fast fashion remains the murkiest of businesses.

It was a haunting image that pricked me: a young couple coated in dust and blood, united in death, his arms wrapped protectively around her in a hopeless attempt to shelter her from the avalanche of concrete and steel.

What were their names, I wondered? Their hopes and dreams? And why did they die for something so trivial as a dress or a blouse?

Army personnel oversee the recovery operation at the collapsed Rana Plaza garment factory building in Bangladesh where 1129 people died in 2013.
Army personnel oversee the recovery operation at the collapsed Rana Plaza garment factory building in Bangladesh where 1129 people died in 2013.

They were just two of the more than 1100 people, mainly garment workers, killed in the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh.

Last month 42 people were charged over the disaster, a rare step in a country where critics complain that powerful garment industry bosses often go unpunished for factory accidents.

Like many, I was horrified by the tragedy and vowed to buy only ethical clothing from then on.

But our world is filled with horrifying images, and outrage and memories quickly dim.

I still bought the top I had eyed for a couple of weeks that was on sale, and when I needed new jeans, I gave little thought to how they were produced or who had made them.

Philippine protesters call for justice after the deaths of 72 factory workers.
Philippine protesters call for justice after the deaths of 72 factory workers.

In May this year another 72 people died in a shoe factory fire in the Philippines, with reports suggesting that iron grills over windows prevented workers from escaping the flames. I was galvanised into action.

Gershon Nimbalker, advocacy manager for Baptist World Aid, says work on the first ethical fashion report was underway when the Rana Plaza building collapsed.

"[After Rana Plaza] we realised a lot of people, globally and in Australia/Australasia, were asking the same questions: 'Who is making my clothes and how are they being treated?'

"Since then the ongoing investment in the report has been driven by a belief that if consumers take this seriously and retailers recognise that, then they will take it seriously as well.

"We can change the industry and impact hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people around the world."

Although Baptist World Aid is campaigning for improvements in supply chains, Nimbalker says, supporters who want to shop ethically struggle in the same way I did to find useful information about the practices of brands and retailers.

"This launched us down the path of developing a system that was robust and clear.
"One that we can give to people to say these are the companies that are taking action to mitigate the risk of forced labour, child labour and exploitation," he says.

Nimbalker says massive shifts have taken place between the first report and a follow up in 2014 with almost all companies improving the manufacturing side of their chain. Nevertheless, much remains to be done.

"Three quarters of companies still don't know where their fabrics and inputs are coming from, and one in 10 don't know where their cotton is coming from," he says.

"If they don't know who is producing the fabrics and who is producing their cotton, then they can't ensure there is no slavery or exploitation at those levels of the supply chain.

"We really don't want to see another Rana Plaza-type disaster happening deeper down the supply chain before companies make changes."

A friend, a former fashion buyer, recommended I read To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? Written in 2011 by Guardian journalist Lucy Siegle, this extensively researched book details the issues at every stage of the garment-making supply chain.

Forced labour, environmental degradation in cotton farming, rivers turned blue from dye, lung disease caused by sandblasting denim and worker exploitation. It's bleak reading.

Siegle went on to executive produce documentary The True Cost, which premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

She told the Herald on Sunday there had been little improvement since she wrote her book.

The overarching problem, Siegle says, is an unsustainable business model.

"Brands and retailers have made enormous profits out of fast fashion. Some of the more enlightened, which are sensitive to reputation - and probably want to do some good, too - are prepared to divert a pot of money into 'doing good'.

"At this point, we are seeing tweaking, such as pilot projects on a living wage, centres for garment workers, perhaps the odd park for kids, that sort of thing.

"What the brands and retailers won't do is reconstruct the supply chain so that we can be damned sure that Rana Plaza will never happen again."

Improvements are taking place at the manufacturing level, but unless retailers and brands control and monitor the entire chain, human exploitation and environmental degradation will continue.

The difference with the ethical brands, especially Fair Trade brands, says Siegle, is that they know the details at all levels.

"The only way to correct an exploitative system is to get into the detail and make real changes."

From seed to store

Gosia Piatek, owner of the ethical fashion label Kowtow.
Gosia Piatek, owner of the ethical fashion label Kowtow.

Gosia Piatek started her ethical-fashion brand 10 years ago but says the real change has begun only in the past six months.

Piatek launched Kow Tow out of a genuine desire to see people thrive and be happy, she says, and not as a marketing ploy.

She closely monitors each stage, from organic fair trade cotton grown, woven and manufactured by fair frade suppliers in India, through manufacturing to delivery to the store.

She says it was daunting to set up a range from scratch and took lots of research before she found all the organisations to ensure her supply chain was ethical throughout.

She thinks that is why ethical brands remain the exception rather than the rule.

"A large, existing business, say with 30 or 40 years under your belt, you would have to add in new lines and make the changes slowly.

"They couldn't do it from scratch all over again."

But ethical brands are increasingly becoming a consumer choice, meaning shoppers will vote with their feet.

"For the past eight years we have sold our brand because [buyers] liked the design, colours and the fit, and the extra cherry on top was that it was fair trade and stood out from other labels," says Piatek.

"However, over the last six months, we have had major accounts pick us up internationally because of the foundation of fair trade and organic."

She feels the culture shift is driven in part by younger consumers.

"It's normal to meet early 20-year-olds who are vegetarian, who garden, who don't want to get drunk, who go to the theatre ... they have different values."

How to be an ethical shopper

• Research before you buy. Ask the question: "Who makes your clothes?"

• Stop being a slave to fast fashion. Make your clothes last. Don't buy and dump after wearing them a couple of times.

• Recycle with care. Find out where your clothes will end up and what impact they have on the environment or local economies.

• Be wary of "greenwashing" - brands that use deceptive green marketing, eg, organic cotton T-shirts made in sweatshops.

• Support initiatives such as the Ethical Fashion Report to enable New Zealand consumers to make informed choices. Read this year's report at behindthebarcode.org.au

• Check if the producers are signatories to the three major accords:
Uzbekistan Cotton Pledge, Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh and the Ethical Trading Initiative.

• Educate yourself. Read To Die For by Lucy Siegle and Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pieta Rivioli. Watch the newly released documentary film The True Cost.

• Online shopping is a great way to source ethical brands you cannot find in this country. Dutch brand Kuyichi is an outstanding example of a fully ethical and well-documented fashion supply chain. See kuyichi.com