After an almost 20-year hiatus, I’ve returned to dance. My jazz and tap shoes, much like my muscles and my moves, aren’t quite what they used to be. I tried my favourite Op Shops to see if I could pick up some second hand shoes but, alas, no luck. I had a quick look on eBay (the second stop for my style-revivalist needs) but no love there either. There’s a Bloch store at my local shopping centre but, before I bit the buying-bullet, I checked their rating on the Baptist World Aid (BWA) Ethical Fashion Report Card. Bloch received a failing grade. I won’t be getting my dance shoes from them. But that begs the question: where does one find ethically-made dance shoes?
I turned to Professor Google and ended up going down a research-binge rabbit-hole (this has a tendency to happen when I should be writing my thesis). I learned a whole lot about the worldwide garment industry. I was aware that there were problems, and I had been buying ethically produced clothing when I could, but what I learned is shocking. And it deserves repeating.
The first step is growing the cotton. Cotton is grown in over 100 countries around the world but up to 99% of the world’s cotton farmers live in developing and newly industrialising countries. Some of the biggest cotton producing countries are China, India, Pakistan and Brazil. And the awful truth is that there are reports of child labour in the cotton industries in China, India, USA, Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan and Turkey.
The cotton is then processed in ginning factories, turned into fabric, and cut to size in much the same countries and with much the same exploitation. What’s even worse, are the reports of physical and sexual abuse – of adults and of children – coming out of these factories. Let’s let that sink in for a moment: the hoodie I am wearing is most likely made from cotton farmed by a boy in India. He works over 12 hours a day, in extreme temperatures, without enough food, for less than a dollar a day. My hoodie was then constructed by a 12-year-old girl in Bangladesh. She lives hundreds of kilometres from her family and, in what is nothing other than modern-day slavery, she’s forced to make thousands of hoodies per week. If she complains, she and her family are threatened or worse. This is the stuff of dystopian novels, but it’s happening as I type.
In fact, there is no stage of the fashion lifecycle that is without moral stain. And, to quite literally add insult to injury, it is estimated approximately 20% of this fabric will end up as textile waste. And what does get turned into, say, a comfy maroon hoodie, ends up in landfill when that fast fashion trend is over. In Australia alone, more than 500,000 tonnes of textiles and leather end up in landfill each year. If we return to India, that little boy who farmed the cotton for my hoodie knows that maroon will be in fashion because that is the colour the rivers have turned from dye run-off.
There are reprehensible practices at every link in the supply chain, and it’s happening on a global scale. What on Earth can we do? Well, thankfully, quite a bit. Downloading the BWA Ethical Fashion Guide is a good start. Try to buy from companies who have received a good rating and encourage others to do so, too. I’ve also downloaded an app called ‘Good On You’ which introduces us to ethical fashion brands like Outland Denim and provides us with information and articles like “Why We Should Wear Clothes Until They’re Worn Out”.
If your favourite brand or store has received a poor rating, contact them and ask about their policies and processes. Companies have a responsibility to examine their supply chains and work with suppliers to ensure that their product is exploitation free. I sometimes like to purchase my work-pencil-skirts from Portmans (if I’m not having much Op Shop luck), but they only received a C+, so I contacted them on Facebook to ask what they’re doing to improve their rating. No response as yet…
And lastly, if you’ve wondered how much of a difference we can really make when unethical practices are so entrenched at each level of production, my research rabbit-hole prompted me to ask that question, too. It’s true that broad-scale systemic change probably won’t happen until there is, for example, legislative reform in many cotton-producing countries, and until post-colonial countries are able to produce something more than primary goods. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) partners with companies worldwide to work towards goals like these.  Just one example is the change they’ve been able to bring about in Vietnam, through the Better Work programme.
Particularly since Australia is part of the Asia-Pacific region, we can aim to meet our clothing needs with companies like ASOS, Esprit, Target and others who support and partner with workers in Vietnam. We can also look at supporting children’s education in cotton-producing countries. We can focus specifically on improving the health of women working in the garment industry. We can employ migrants from garment-producing countries. And we can look to, and support, the work of organisations like ILO, BWA and World Vision, which are carrying out these kinds of aid and development projects and which are asking us to buy ethically made clothing and shoes.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, I did eventually buy some ethically made Capezio jazz shoes. I’m going to put my money where my mouth is (feet are?) and I hope you can, too.
Erin Martine Sessions is Associate Academic Dean at Morling College. She's an indolent poet and mother to two tiny humans.