New Zealanders can fight pollution and "sweat shops" by becoming "anti-consumers" who buy guilt free clothing.
University of Auckland researcher Miriam Seifert says because clothing has become so affordable, many people are caught in a vicious cycle of buying too many unnecessary items.
The fashion industry is regarded as one of the most polluting in the world, generating millions of tons of waste every year. Globally production has doubled since 2000 and Seifert says it is time for it - and shoppers - to slow down.
She says being an anti-consumer could help: "An anti-consumer is someone who chooses not to consume certain products because, among other reasons, they are aware of the environmental damage they cause.
"This may help shoppers in identifying high quality, guilt free clothing options and fashion companies achieving competitive advantage."
But Seifert realises changing buying habits could take years. "The trouble is when you go shopping you are not thinking about the supply chain, you are looking only at a beautiful garment."
Seifert, a doctoral candidate in business and management at the university's Faculty of Business and Economics, is soon to publish a thesis on ethical fashion. Her research is based on interviews she has conducted with 50 clothing companies around the world, exploring how firms make money by asking people to buy less.
It comes as the relief and development group Tearfund has released a report in which it graded international companies on their ethical fashion practices. One hundred and fourteen companies – including 18 from New Zealand – were graded.
Three of the five highest rated brands were from New Zealand and overall Kiwi companies scored an average of B-, a rating unchanged from last year. The companies were assessed through three stages – raw materials, input production and final stage production.
But Seifert says much of the clothing available in New Zealand shops is produced in low-cost countries using manufacturing processes that put pressure on working conditions and the environment. She says shoppers deserve to know the wages of the person who made the clothes and how much pollution was generated in making them.
"As consumers we think when we spend $5 on a T-shirt we are saving money," she says. "But we are overlooking the real cost of making clothes because many fashion companies shift production to low cost countries using sweat shop labour and the world's limited resources."
Seifert believes the solution is what she calls 'slow' fashion where shoppers are encouraged to re-think their buying behavior and consume more consciously - and for fashion businesses to slow down production.
Seifert believes more information needs to be provided on clothing labels - similar to food labelling - so people are more easily able to assess the supply chain history of products coming into New Zealand.
While consumer laws in New Zealand hold producers to account for label claims, consumers have to rely on what companies tell them.
"Regulation is very low and I think responsible, socially and environmentally-oriented companies would like to see legislation in the industry," she says. "This would help them stay ahead of competitors – at least for a short time – and would enable shoppers who are becoming more environmentally aware to connect with the value of these firms by being able to identify and buy higher quality, guilt-free clothing."
But Seifert says the push for greater regulation needs to come from consumers and the companies themselves because "they will be the ones positively or negatively affected by legislation."
She also believes industry waste should be used as a resource: "I don't have figures for New Zealand but in Hong Kong I understand every minute up to 1400 T-shirts are thrown out, while in the US more than 15 million tons of textile waste is generated each year " she says. "So why not make pillows out of it, or make shoes from recycled plastic bottles?"
International opinion supports Seifert's view. An article earlier this year in Britain's The Guardian newspaper said fashion was arguably the world's second-most polluting industry behind oil.
"The fashion industry is contributing to major environmental destruction – mainly because consumers insist on buying so many clothes at such cheap prices," the article said. "This has terrible impacts on people too, with workers in developing nations often paid a pittance to labour in unsafe conditions.
"The solution lies in buying less and choosing better quality items that are made as ethically as possible."
According to Greenpeace, global clothing production has doubled since 2000. The average person buys 60 per cent more items every year but keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago while around only 15 per cent of them are recycled.
In the US, Americans throw away around 80lbs (36kg) of used clothing per person every year.
Of the 15 million tons of textile waste generated in the US, just 2.6 million tons is recycled with more than 10 million tons going into landfill, much of it synthetic material which can take hundreds of years to decompose.