Ethical Fashion

Who made the clothes you’re wearing? If you’re currently looking at the jeans you’ve been wearing for years, or the dress you bought on sale the other day and you’re feeling a little caught out by this question, chances are you’re not the only one. Sure, you might’ve noticed the tag upon your purchase, but whether it reads ‘Made in Nepal’ or ‘Made in Australia’, do you really know where it’s coming from? More importantly, do you know who was responsible for making it?

Many clothing companies aren’t aware of who makes the garments they sell. Despite an obligation to do so, the vast majority of fashion retailers and brands do not publish a supplier list.

As consumers we often mistakenly assume that our purchases only affect us, without thinking about the various individuals involved in the production of the materials and the resources used to create the product we’re so quick to hand our cash over.

But in snaring what we might think is a hip bargain or a harmless t-shirt, we might be hurting workers along the production line.

In addition, we might also be encouraging exploitative working conditions in sweatshops and the trafficking of human beings who have been sold and purchased to work in garment factories and other areas of the cotton industry.

The cotton industry – how common is exploitation?

Cotton is one of the most widely grown crops in the world. We find it in the clothes we wear and the fabrics we use every day in our homes. The cotton industry is one of the largest agricultural industries in the world, with an estimated 300 million people working in it. Up to 99 percent of the world’s cotton farmers live and work in developing countries, the majority residing in India or China.

Within the cotton industry there are wide reports of forced and child labour. In the Tamil Nadu region of India, over 200,000 young women and girls are trafficked to work in the cotton industry. Forced to work up to 12 hours a day or more in often unsafe and strenuous conditions, victims of trafficking become trapped in exploitative conditions at the financial benefit of fashion retailers and companies.

The cotton that is spun, dyed and woven in these factories are sold to consumer markets all over the world, which means that the products we buy here in Australia may be at the hands of forced and child labour. It is likely to be found in many of our favourite shops and labels, and in the garments in our wardrobes and drawers.

How to know whether your clothes are made in sweatshops:

If you’re wearing brands like Nike, Adidas, Puma or our Australian-owned Bonds or Just Jeans, chances are that your clothes were made in places that can be described as sweatshops by people working in exploitative conditions. While sweatshops are particularly common in developing countries where labour laws are often not enforced, they are not limited to the developing world.

We can find them in our own backyard.

Here in Australia, exploitative practices take place in garment factories that host sweatshop conditions. The victims at the front of the assembly line are often recent immigrants with poor English and limited understanding of workplace law. It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of these workers being exploited in garment factories in Australia, working for as little as $3 an hour, with no superannuation, insurance or other employment benefits.


As students and casual or part time workers, a good bargain is a celebrated find. With many of us unable to afford big designer labels, we often turn to cheap, mass-manufactured products to appease our fashion hunger without breaking the bank balance. But in terms of buying ethically sourced products, this may be a bigger issue than most of us realise.

Experts in the clothing industry actually believe that the cheaper the price tag, the greater the chance the product has been made in sweatshop conditions by workers whose labour is being exploited.

That’s not to say that all inexpensive clothing is made in this conditions, but a price tag of less than $10 should signal alarm amongst consumers.

How to buy exploitation-free clothing – an ethical fashion alternative

Want to ensure your wardrobe is exploitation and traffic-free?

  1. Find out more about the cotton production process here and about forced and child labour in the cotton industry
  2. Check clothing labels and buy products made from ethically certified cotton whenever you can. If clothing carries the Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) label it means the garment was manufactured in Australia and the manufacturer has committed to ensuring that all of the people involved in its production received, as minimum the legally stated wage rates and conditions. See the ECA list of accredited brands to find out which Australian garments you can purchase to support fair working conditions.
  3. Buy second hand, recycled clothing and materials or make it yourself!
  4. Join campaigns supporting ethical clothing and labour practices through A Year of Ethical FashionWorld Vision, Oxfam, and Stop The Traffik 

In a society saturated with images of the latest fashion trends and ‘this season’s look’, it can be difficult to resist the pressure to conform and buy into a consumer culture that doesn’t think about where and how the products we purchase have been made. In trying on and purchasing ethical clothing we can become more conscious consumers and promote better working conditions for those on the production line.

A shopping bargain can seem like a sweet find, but it’s worth considering whether that $5 t-shirt is worth the ethical compromises you take when purchasing clothing sourced from sweatshops.