ethical shopping
Is it possible to be an “ethical consumer”? We unpack the issues of sustainability, ethics, labour, consumption, and all the complex nuances and contradictions between.

Summer is approaching, and the conundrum of swimwear is on your mind. Putting aside the obvious woes of swimwear shopping, this year you’re looking to buy “ethically.”

Do you buy one brand’s bikini made entirely from abandoned ocean plastic, but in a Bangladeshi factory with underpaid workers? Or do you buy from a local brand with zero environmental commitments that produces in an Australian factory and abides by fair working standards?

What if you manage to unearth an ethically-sound and environmentally-friendly bikini, but there’s a pre-order list, it costs $650, and it’s only stocked in sizes 6 to 12. Might you be forgiven for throwing ethics to the wind and grabbing whatever bikini you feel half decent in at the local mall?

The point is, values compete and so does the discrepancy between how — ideally — you would like to consume, and what — realistically — is available to you. While you may set out to uphold certain standards, that often doesn’t translate to what’s available, and even when it does, those products are not necessarily accessible or suited to everyone’s needs.

The multidimensional nature of the issue makes it virtually impossible for the average consumer to make purchases completely free of ethical flaws. Even with the best intentions, honouring one standard may violate another. While ethical consumerism has become fashion’s latest buzzword, it’s never been easier to feel powerless in this dizzying economy. And here’s why.

Issue #1: Buying sustainable versus buying less

There’s a new generation rising in the fashion industry that is witnessing a rapid emergence of brands with sustainable credentials. Buying clothes that are mindfully made has never been easier, but is it really better to buy sustainable than it is to buy less?

The fact remains that Australia throws away about 6000kg of clothing every 10 minutes, 85 per cent of which winds up in landfill, a fact revealed by War on Waste, an ABC three-part documentary that aired in 2017. Explicitly branded sustainable or otherwise, clothes thrown away contribute to the inordinate amount of waste polluting the earth.

A “green” clothing campaign that encourages consumers to buy more isn’t a fix; it’s reinforcing the problem. As long as wants are valued over needs, and the trend cycle continues to churn, the aspirational culture of consumerism will continue to damage the planet, regardless of how consumption is greenwashed.

On the other side of the coin, durability-focused companies are combating wastefulness with a culture of “fewer, better things”. Premium fabrics intended to last a lifetime provide a true antidote to the damaging culture of overflowing, underutilised closets, but again, there are drawbacks.

While this sort of responsible spending focuses on cost-per-wear, encouraging shoppers to invest in fewer pieces and select items they will love for longer, it is often out of monetary reach for shoppers. This is especially true for younger consumers who are the biggest culprits of purchasing fast-fashion items.

To truly relieve the strain on our planet, buying mindfully must be accompanied by buying less. Of course, it’s better to buy from an eco-conscious company than a fast-fashion outlet, but better still to revive the culture of saving up and investing in fewer pieces.

Issue #2: Buying vintage and second-hand

Buying vintage or second-hand helps to reclaim clothes that might otherwise end up in landfill. Part of the fun is the hunt — trawling through Depop, charity shop rails or streets of vintage shops is a much more arduous task than simply selecting your size from a drop-down menu and clicking “add to cart” — and it also removes the impulse factor that helps fuel the fast-fashion industry.

Vintage garments are often more durable, sewn to last longer than cheaply-made fast-fashion items that favour trend over quality. And aside from their obvious eco benefits, unearthing steals that no one else has is a welcome change in the Instagram age where sartorial uniformity is the norm.

Yet our freedom as consumers is constrained by what’s available to buy. There are undoubtedly ecological benefits to buying vintage or second-hand, but the scale is vastly limited, and this is especially true for plus-size women.

It’s no secret that the average Australian woman is bigger than she was 40 years ago, meaning much vintage shopping is reserved for those under a size 12. On top of that, buyers have little protection when it comes to returns, exchanges and faults, so while the benefits are undeniable, shoppers cannot escape the inevitable drawbacks.

Issue #3: The livelihood of the earth versus that of the labourer

Six years after the Bangladesh Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed 1138 labourers and injured 2500 others, our clothes are still being made by some of the poorest, most overworked and vulnerable people in the world.

Unsafe working conditions and unfair pay are rife for millions of garment workers, children included. Buyers have become completely alienated from the labourer, which is why campaigns such as Who Made My Clothes, which emerged after the Rana Plaza tragedy, are so important.

For consumers to fully appreciate the value of the items they purchase, brands must bring the labourer into view, closing the disparity between the attention paid to the clothes and that given to the worker.

While sustainable fibres, recycled materials, water usage and carbon dioxide emissions have very much come into vogue, for the most part the worker remains out of sight. In this year’s Fashion Transparency Index by Fashion Revolution, a large majority of the 200 global brands investigated scored 0-10 per cent in terms of traceability. That means only a small percentage published lists of their suppliers and disclosed factories, processing facilities and raw material suppliers. Where, how and under what circumstances your clothes are made therefore remains unknown.

While it’s true clothing is produced in a very complex supply chain, with almost infinite scope for where transgressions can be hidden, brands need to work harder to be across every stage of the process.

Until there is this level of transparency, consumers will continue to be put in situations where they — either knowingly or otherwise — choose between sustainable fashion (what’s good for the environment) and ethical fashion (what’s fair for the worker).

So, how should you shop?

Stepping into the world of ethical fashion is not without its potential pitfalls and confusions, but as the consumer, you have the power to continue to set the bar higher, ask questions, do your research, hold brands accountable and demand transparency.

The point is not to ensure every purchase is ethically flawless, but to make decisions that reflect your own beliefs. Fashion has always been deeply personal; how and of what your clothes are made should say something about who you are as both a citizen and a consumer. To truly wear your heart on your sleeve, shopping choices must hinge on aesthetics and ethics.

Making it simpler

Get tech savvy

There are plenty of apps and websites dedicated to ethical shopping. The Australian-based Good On You app rates brands based on their ethics, sustainability and transparency, so you can quickly find out if brands are acting as good stewards.

Withdraw your support

Effect change in the industry by boycotting brands that violate ethical standards. As the all-powerful consumer, your spending leverage will get brands acting.

Recycle your clothes

The easiest way you can relieve the strain of fashion on the planet is by recycling your unwanted clothes. Organise a clothing swap with friends, donate what you can to a charity shop, and for more worn items, find out where your nearest fabric recycling bin is located.