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One of the most common questions I get asked is, ‘How do I know when a garment is ethical and sustainable?’ and it’s a very valid question. We’re bombarded by information all day long through social media, other digital outlets, over the radio, on the TV, through advertising on the street and signage in shops… Sometimes it’s difficult to decipher it all and make the right decision when it comes to buying, and it can all get a little confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s just about taking the time to stop and think before you buy. 

I spoke to the students at Edithvale Primary School this morning about ethics and sustainability in fashion, so I had to come up with a theory that twelve-year-olds would remember and understand, but it’s a method that everyone should shop by. I’ve coined it, ‘The Three M’s’, and it’s a theory that will eliminate any confusion you might have about the piety of a piece clothing.

Firstly, start with where a garment is MADE, and you can do this by heading straight for the garment label. It is a legal requirement in Australia to have each piece of clothing tagged with its country of origin, so it's black and white. If it’s made in Australia, that’s a great start because you know it’s been made in safe conditions by someone who’s being paid an award wage. If it’s made in India or China, that usually means it’s been made by someone who’s not paid much at all, working in dangerous and inhumane conditions. It’s a blanket statement because there are a select few labels who work closely with small communities in third world countries building ethical supply chains, but this is a rarity. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 170 million children are engaged in slave labour making textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of the fast fashion industry. When it comes to a garment’s country of origin, it’s simple – buy Australian made.

The second factor to consider is what MATERIALS have been used, and it’s also a legal requirement to have this listed on the clothing tag. The types of fabrics and materials will tell you how much of an environmental impact the garment has had during the production phase, how much of an impact it will have while it’s being worn and washed, and what kind of an impact it will have when you decide to get rid of it. Natural and renewal fibres like bamboo, wool and linen are much more environmentally friendly than synthetic fibres like lycra, polyester and nylon, which are made from non-renewable resources and petrochemicals. Polyester requires more than double the energy of conventional cotton to produce, and harmful chemicals and carcinogens are used which leak into the waterways and dissipate into the air during production causing significant environmental damage. When synthetic fabrics eventually decompose in landfill, they leak these chemicals straight into the soil and into waterways.

The third factor to consider is how MUCH you’re paying for a garment, and the cost of a piece of clothing will often reflect the conditions in which it has been made. Let’s use a cotton t-shirt as an example and start from the beginning of its lifecycle; cotton has to be farmed, harvested, de-seeded, carded, spun and then woven into fabric, and the fabric then needs to be dyed, treated, cut and rolled, all which is a costly process. A designer then spends hours working out the t-shirt’s fit, construction, details and colours, before moving into the production phase where a pattern needs to be made for a sample garment. The sample then needs to be fitted and re-made before a final garment is approved for manufacturing. The t-shirt then moves into the distribution phase, and if it has been made in India, it needs to be imported to Australia, so non-renewable fossil fuels are used in transportation and carbon emissions are generated. Hundreds of kilograms of plastic and packaging are also used to meet Australia's strict customs requirements, and every person who has touched it thus far has a wage to be paid. When it finally makes it into the retail environment, this t-shirt has to be merchandised in a store that is operated by staff who have wages to be paid, and the store has a rental lease to cover, and there’s the cost of labelling, swing tags, store bags and the rest. If you’re standing in a store and thinking about buying this t-shirt and it costs less than $50, don’t do it. If you think about every single step of the garment lifecycle that occurs even before you buy it, and all the wages, the time, the materials, the costs, the everything – it is not possible that a $50 t-shirt has been made in an ethical environment, and the people who have slaved to make this t-shirt most certainly haven't been paid a fair wage.

‘The Three M’s’ are easy to understand and remember, and when you stop to think about it, it all makes sense. Where a garment is MADE, what MATERIALS it's made from and how MUCH it costs, will answer any questions you have about ethics and sustainability.

Every garment counts. Buy less, choose well, shop local.

The Fashion Advocate x


  • Hey Donna! Thank you for your comment. I’m glad it helps! Claire x

    The Fashion Advocate

  • Hey Robert! Thank you for your comment. I agree with – transparency is just as much of an issue. It’s another factor I advocate for! All we can do is do our best each time we shop, and do our research. Keep at it! Claire x

    The Fashion Advocate

  • Hey Geralyn! Thank you for your comment. It was so much fun working with kids, they’re our future after all! Claire x

    The Fashion Advocate

  • Brilliantly simple model!

    Donna Cameron

  • I appreciated this article, especially the section on Made. I can and will make more of an effort to buy natural fibers. I have some reservations on the how much section. I feel many retailers will continue to buy in an exploitative way but sell at prices to deceive us. Perhaps the retailer bought the $50 shirt for the same price as the retailer who sells for $10. I am a pensioner and shop at Aldi. I would be interested in policies that encourage retailers to price competitively after they have bought in an ethical manner.

    Robert Maxwell

  • Well done, you, on breaking it down for the lucky kids – and for the rest of us. Much to think about and much to be grateful for. Thanks


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