‘australian made’ doesn’t mean your clothes are sweatshop and child labor free

Our narrow focus on locally made products often means turning a blind eye to the very real problems in Australian manufacturing.

by Naomi Russo
13 May 2016, 4:35am

Image via Wikipedia

When the Rana Plaza collapsed in 2013 the world was forced to face where our cheap clothes came from. In the years since a focus on improving transparency in the industry and considering manufacturing locations has become a cornerstone of the current "fashion revolution". But long before the collapse sparked a global conversation around consumer responsibility we had been imprinted with the notion that local is best. From fashion to food, "Australian made" and "locally produced" have become unconscious shorthand for ethical, sustainable and intrinsically better.

The arguments for the local movement are well documented: items made in Australia leave less of a carbon footprint, create jobs and support the economy. Production at home is also more easily monitored and held to an ethical standard.

From fashion to food, 'Australian made" and "locally produced' have become unconscious shorthand for ethical, sustainable and intrinsically better.

But as is so often the case with catch-all labels, it isn't always that straightforward. Supporting international markets can mean providing revenue for developing countries' economies, whilst also providing jobs that often empower young women. Which isn't to say that the current situation in developing world manufacturing centres like Bangladesh isn't horrific for many young workers. But that rather the process of improving conditions for workers overseas doesn't start by rejecting their market. Changes need to be made, but restricting our purchases to local-only won't help them happen faster (or at all). And a myopic focus on locally made products also often means turning a blind eye to the very real problems in manufacturing in our own country. While the majority of locally manufactured garments come out of an environment where employees are treated well and fairly compensated for their work, the first world still harbours sweatshop cultures.

In 2010 the Herald Sun reported on a series of illegal production setups in Melbourne who were employing outworkers to create clothes for Australian brands and paying them well below minimum wage. At the time Elizabeth Macpherson from the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia told the paper, "it's rife and in our backyard…I've seen conditions here that are worse than anywhere abroad."

These reports drew attention to a previously invisible problem, and since then companies and the government have worked on improving worker rights in Australia. But Sigrid McCarthy from Ethical Clothing Australia told i-D that "conditions are improving..though obviously issues still exist." She explains that complex networks can make it difficult for principal companies to know who is actually making their products. Companies however are "realising they need to take responsibility for workers in their supply chain," McCarthy adds.

'I've seen conditions here that are worse than anywhere abroad.'

Fair Work Australia are also trying to combat the issue, providing information online for Australian outworkers about their rights. However, CHOICE, the consumer advocacy group, reports that because many outworkers are non-English speaking immigrants they are "often completely unaware of their rights and fear complete loss of income if they speak up, so they stay silent and endure the poor conditions."

Additionally it's important to remember that "Australian Made" doesn't mean all the materials were made or grown here. The Australian Fashion Report claimed that in 2015 90 percent of companies in Australia didn't know where their cotton was sourced. As the report argued, while "raw materials sit outside the purview of companies, the worst forms of worker rights abuse (including forced and child labour) will continue to remain prevalent in these parts of the supply chain."

Traditionally "Made in Australia" has also been shorthand for quality, while "Made in China" evokes images of shoddy workmanship. But once again, that's an oversimplification. "Made in China" no longer means what it used to. The ability for intense specialisation and rising wages have combined to create Chinese businesses that put a focus on quality, rather than cheap quantity. Which isn't to say that sweatshops are no longer a problem, rather that an alternative way of doing things is possible.

To pull out of countries that don't enforce fair working standards may cause further harm to workers.

This of course is still bypassing the undeniable reality that many sweatshops still exist overseas—despite the interest in technologies and practices that will hopefully one day eradicate them. But to pull out of countries that don't enforce fair working standards may cause further harm to workers. The Scientific American reported that "Advocates who worry about exploitative sweatshops have to appreciate the relative improvement in these women's conditions and status." The article added that Reports from NGOs such as Oxfam have found that whilst workers dislike their conditions they have improved lifestyles in the factories than if they were back home.

Instead increased focus is being placed on more protection for women, rather than taking away their employment completely. As the International Labour Organisation reported in 2015, the "industry generates over a trillion dollars of export revenue, predominantly for low and middle income countries." To pull business away from developing countries like Bangladesh means taking away this source of revenue."

Some brands are bucking the trend, creating and utilising factories that are fairly employing workers. Fair Wear Foundation reported in 2015 that 13 FWF members sourced their goods from Bangladesh, from 415 factories. This might be a minuscule portion of makers, but it is the beginning of a way of business that can embrace ethics and a global market.

Increased focus is being placed on more protection for women, rather than taking away their employment completely.

But where does this leave the consumer when they're standing in a store trying to put their money towards the best manufacturing process? It means we need to learn to separate local and ethical in our minds, and not assume they're the same.

If you want to purchase Australian products look for ones that hold the Ethical Clothing Australia accreditation. This is a comprehensive guarantee that brands' Australian supply chains are fully transparent and legally compliant. ECA annually audits entire Australian production networks, which means that issues brands may not themselves even be aware of come to light.

Ultimately though the retail price of clothing remains the most direct indication of the experience of the person who made it. Locally and overseas if a worker was paid properly you will absorb that price. A low-priced Made in Australia piece is unlikely to be ethically made. Although a high price doesn't automatically mean ethically made, and consumers should look for other indicators such as ethical accreditation or information offered by the company.

In the face of such a complex industry, it's important to remember the huge power consumers have over brands. After Rana Plaza many brands faced intense pressure to improve their worker protection, and as a result over 70 made legal changes to ensure better environments for their workers. Obviously the fight is far from over and ignoring brand's culpability allows the problem to continue. To truly make change we all need to look beyond our individual responsibilities, and realise that we make our biggest statements with our wallets. 


Text Naomi Russo
Image via Wikipedia

Rana Plaza
Made in China
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made in australia
rana plaza collapsed