Is it time to label our clothes for ethical manufacturing like we label our food?



Could compulsory labelling stamp out unethical practices in Australia’s fashion industry?  

Editor’s note: Before we begin, it’s important to define the term ‘slavery’ and what it actually means. In Australia, modern slavery is a term used to describe serious exploitation. It includes forced labour, wage exploitation, involuntary servitude, debt bondage, excessive overtime, unsafe working conditions and human trafficking. Practices like substandard working conditions or underpayment of workers don’t necessarily equate to slavery, though they may be present in some situations of modern slavery. 

It’s a shocking and upsetting term, but it’s also accurate in describing the situation for millions worldwide. We considered softening the language for this article, but think it’s important to adopt the terminology used by Australian legislation and human rights organisations.   

Check out how these brands are working towards sustainability.

It’s also important to understand just how prohibitively difficult it can be for a brand to identify modern slavery in its supply chain. There are so many tiers within garment manufacturing frameworks (who sows the seeds to grow the cotton? Who spins the fibres into thread? Who services the factory’s machinery? Who transports the fabric? Who shapes the buttons?) and so many overlapping contractual structures, that it’s not as simple as asking a question and flushing out unethical practices. Slave labour in our industry is so widespread, it can be near-impossible to avoid, as you’ll see below. For further reading on this point, see here and here. 

This article is not about finger-pointing, or galvanising any one individual or corporation to change. Instead, it explores one potential solution to an incredibly complex and wide-reaching problem, and how it might support both our industry and consumers in reaching more ethical practices. 

If you picked up a $5 T-shirt at your local store, and it was clearly labelled as made by slave labour, would you buy it? Current labelling regulations in Australia ensure that, as a consumer, you are able to easily spot the exact fabric composition of your clothing, and even detailed dry cleaning notes, but theres absolutely no requirement for garments to show they are slave labour-free, or otherwise.

So why does the law require that we label cigarettes with graphic warnings of lung disease, or cage eggs with a view to encouraging the ethical choice towards free-range, but we’re not legally mandated to label clothing made by slave labour? With the huge human toll that garment production is creating across the globe, as the second-largest industry to contribute to the staggering 25 million people in forced labour worldwide, its time to think of alternative solutions.

So Im considering one– one that legally mandates the industry to collectively locate, then stamp out or disclose slave labour, while also providing a simple choice for consumers at the point of sale – compulsory labelling. But before we delve into whether the industry thinks it could improve our manufacturing practices, lets take a look at the issues surrounding modern slavery in garment production.

How prevalent is slave labour?

The 20 most powerful economies in the world imported US$127.7 billion worth of clothing that was identified as at-risk of being made by slave labour in 2018, so it’s fair to say it’s startlingly prevalent in the fashion industry.

And if you think a garment being made in Australia makes it slave labour-free, it’s not that simple. “We have slavery here in Australia. In many industries. It’s a real problem in every single corner of the globe, and most of us don’t realise it,” says James Bartle, founding CEO of ethical denim brand, Outland Denim.

As a brand that has switched its focus from trying to prove it’s slavery-free, to actively trying to uncover slave labour conditions within its own supply chain, Bartle knows firsthand that creating a truly slavery-free garment these days is almost impossible – no matter what your intentions.

“What if, instead of trying to prove that our supply chain is clean through the work we’re doing, we actually try to find exploitation in it? It was a huge shift for me mentally – and I’ve got to admit that there was some fear… but that was a game-changer.

“It’s really difficult for brands to get real insight, because that takes a lot of investment from the brand to get the true picture of what’s happening in their manufacturing facilities, and then all the way back into their supply chain, where the fibres are grown.”

This supply chain Bartle refers to is incredibly complex. Although some brands may have manufacturing oversight by creating garments in their own atelier, what about the raw materials? The dyes? The fixings? The packaging? Not to mention that even if something brings the relative comfort of having been made in Australia, in reality we still have tens of thousands of victims of modern slavery living and working within our very own borders.

The pandemic hasn’t helped garment workers much either, as global conglomerates rushed to preserve dwindling profits, cancelling orders in the wake of reduced foot traffic to their stores. The trickle-down effect has been devastating for some, reducing the income of already at-risk workers in countries ravaged by COVID.

What are the challenges for the industry?

It’s easy for us to spitball solutions for stamping out modern slavery in our industry when writers like myself can afford the likely outcome of increased garment prices. There is no doubt that truly ethically made clothing will cost consumers more. We can only hope that the fiscal magic of economies of scale – as brands who steer away from slave labour become more popular and are able to upscale their production – can help to drive prices down for ethical fashion alternatives.

Jade Sarita Arnott, the founder of local label Arnsdorf, is familiar with the push and pull of the economics behind pursuing ethical manufacturing. As a brand with its own Aussie atelier, it has more visibility over its production processes – and also specifically seeks out locally manufactured fibres, like merino wool knitted in Melbourne – but Jade’s the first to admit that it comes at a cost.

“It definitely does [take away from our profit margin],” she says. “But I think it’s something that businesses need to do, just as a moral code of conduct. They’ve maybe had it good, not having to consider these things, but to be a responsible business and a responsible person in this world, that kind of comes as part of your responsibility. It’s definitely more expensive, but I think there needs to be a shift – it needs to be the norm.”

But it’s worth noting that for lower-income consumers, the choice isn’t so easy. Often brands that provide slave labour-manufactured clothing are also the brands that offer cheaper clothing alternatives for people who can’t currently afford ethically made clothing.

The rise of an entire industry doling out $5 garments is a relatively new one. Over the past few decades, clothing has become cheaper than ever. In the past, those who had little to spare for new wardrobe additions were left to scour secondhand and vintage clothing, rather than purchase the relatively expensive new products.

Unfortunately, even this option remains out of reach for many these days, as fashion resale becomes increasingly commercialised and garments often end up exceeding the cost of new, unethical fast fashion.

There’s also the sustainability question mark that hovers over secondhand clothing resale – not to mention the fact that secondhand has also, at some point, likely been touched by slavery itself. So how do we fight modern slavery, and eradicate products that use slave labour, while still ensuring that those on the poverty line can afford the essentials?

How could labelling garments help?

It’s not an easy question to answer, but I believe labelling could help. The introduction of labelling wouldn’t necessarily ban these products, just make them more visible to those who could afford to choose something different – in the same way that cage eggs are still available in the supermarket for those who can’t afford the alternative.

The industry is currently talking about sustainability labelling, so why not industry-wide ethical labelling? During our chat, Bartle agrees that labelling could go some way to encouraging change, but points out that current labelling centres around the positives (like Fair Trade and GOTS), rather than the negatives.

“I think that it needs to be nearly done in reverse… it’s not good enough to just go and put a fair trade stamp on something. The thing that would create the greatest, most rapid change, would be that you’re guilty until proven innocent. If you can’t prove that no one was exploited in the process, then we assume you are – because our industry is so dirty.”

If you’re a fashion brand reading this, and the very idea of being labelled as ‘slave labour produced’ is striking fear into your heart, that’s probably a good thing – it’s kind of the point. The industry has hidden its head in the sand for too long, and consumers are demanding action.

“The fear of knowing is really scary for brands,” says Bartle. “I’ve met so many brand owners that are good people, and really don’t want any part of [slave labour] – but by gosh, they’re super scared to know what’s under the covers, so I guess they choose not to lift them.”

The industry-wide lack of transparency is a real issue

Part of the issue for the industry – besides the aforementioned costs of investigating the supply chain and the immense resources that need to go into that – is the lack of transparency from suppliers. Often when I chat to brands about sustainability or ethical manufacturing, they tell me the biggest challenge can be the lack of clear information flowing through the supply chain.

Elizabeth Abegg, co-founder and chief brand officer at Australian label Spell, makes the important point that it’s one thing to say you’re an ethical brand, but it’s an entirely different thing to prove it.

“Unless [brands are] saying that the information that they’re giving on their website is verifiable, it’s just hearsay right? I used to say to my community that we go and spend time at our factories – and they’re all really legit – but then I realised, until I get a third-party auditor to go in and audit those factories, how can my community really take my word for it?”

Abegg is hesitant to agree that the solution could be found in slave labour labelling, pointing out that the potential downfall of my plan could lie in the depth of regulation around the certification.

“If people are making claims, and they’re not backed up by data, then it really discredits any brand that’s making any claim,” she says. “I think a greater level of transparency is needed on every brand’s website – I don’t know that that information is going to be transferrable to a label without some serious regulation.”

Bartle agrees. “An authority needs to sit in that space to govern it – that’s what I don’t see happening well [currently]. There are a lot of organisations doing a great job, but they’re not an end-to-end solution where you can have confidence that because it’s got this certification that it’s done the right way. I say that because they’re just a snapshot in time – when there’s an audit.

“So until there is a system that sits throughout a supply chain that could give us real transparency, I think it would be really difficult to label products for brands that have really complex supply chains.”

Thankfully, there might be a solution, and it lies in one of the best technological innovations of the last decade: blockchain.

How could technology help to end modern slavery?

It’s important in this discussion not to oversimplify the depths that slave labour can reach within the supply chain, and how murky navigating those waters can be for well-meaning brands.

The idea of slave labour labelling could potentially lead to an oversimplification that lends consumers misplaced comfort, unless literally every single aspect of the supply chain is considered, which in itself is way too complicated for a regulator without a huge number of resources and a wide-ranging amount of influence and power across many different jurisdictions.

In fact, even mega-brands like America’s Walmart don’t really know who is making their clothes. Even if it’s banned the supplier that, due to a fire, killed 112 people in Bangladesh, its orders could still end up there anyway, without its knowledge. As Huffington Post explains:

“Over a year before the fire, Walmart inspected the factory and discovered that it was unsafe. By the time of the fire, it had banned its suppliers from using it. So here’s how its products ended up at Tazreen anyway: Walmart hired a mega supplier called Success Apparel to fill an order for shorts.

“Success hired another company, Simco, to carry out the work. Simco – without telling Success, much less Walmart – sub-contracted 7 per cent of the order to Tazreen’s parent company, the Tuba Group, which then assigned it to Tazreen. Two other sub- (or sub-sub-sub-) contractors also placed Walmart orders at Tazreen, also without telling the company.”

So how do you prevent something from happening that you already tried to stop over a year earlier? The solution could lie in technology. Enter blockchain. Without going into too much technical detail, blockchain is unchangeable and unhackable code that lives on the internet. Currently, it’s mostly used to track ownership and provenance of NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens, mostly in the form of digital art), and the trading of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Essentially, it is a series of tiny blocks of information that are constantly added to – like a chain – to show the irrefutable history of a particular asset. Once each block of code is added, it cannot be changed or altered.

About now you may be catching on to how this technology could be used to track the provenance of a garment – essentially, requiring the garment to be attached to its own blockchain code, and then tracking every single process it undergoes over its lifespan.

In theory, a label would be able to see where the dye came from to colour the garment, who created the material, which factories stitched it together, and how it arrived in their hands – all without any investment or research on their behalf. It would allow for easy and provable provenance, which could translate into low-cost labelling. (It follows that blockchain could potentially stamp out counterfeit goods, also – another benefit for brands who use the technology, as well as customers seeking to purchase or on-sell.)

So why am I so hot on labelling?

The idea that consumers should be deeply researching every single garment they purchase in order to avoid supporting slave labour is clearly unrealistic – and, after all, how are consumers meant to know if their intended purchase has been touched by slave labour if the brands often don’t even know themselves?

By creating an easy solution at the point of sale, any customer can hold up two items, and choose between a garment that has a solid history of tracking, and one with a less transparent history. It’s easy for a consumer to understand that the tracked garment is much less likely to have been touched by slave labour.

It’s not going to be perfect, but consumers aren’t looking for a brand that’s 100 per cent perfect. They’re looking for a brand that’s willing to start those discussions, and willing to look at themselves and admit that they can’t do it all.

In the same way we, as customers, need to also acknowledge how much we contribute to modern slavery, every single day. The reality is, no matter what choices you have made in terms of your clothing, you’re likely to have supported slave labour at some point. The absolutist mentality of ‘I only shop ethical’ is not only naive, it is, more importantly, not accurate.

“The community don’t expect us to be perfect,” says Abegg. “As long as we’re honest with them, and open with them – and continue to get better [and] commit to get better – that’s all they really expect of us. That’s been the fuel of our journey; not being afraid anymore.”

“Have we got a long way to go?” Bartle asks. “We really do. A really long way to go to get to the bottom of this particular issue.” Look, it’s easy to push responsibility back onto the consumer by promoting ethical consumption, but what about the responsibility for brands to ensure ethical manufacturing?

In the end, the fashion industry is built on the backs of consumers doing what they do best – consuming. We just have to ensure it isn’t also built on the backs of people who are suffering.

Learn more about ethical fashion manufacturing here.

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