Saturday, January 9, 2010

Dedicated follower of fashion: bargain hunting, ethical and sustainable fashion, feminism and the retail cycle

One of my favourite hobbies is hunting for fashion bargains. I love swooping in towards the end of the retail cycle (ie at the sale stage) and finding something that is, say, less than half the price of the original. An example: recently, at Sportsgirl, a baggy grey summer cardigan for $15.95; original price: 49.95. I’ve honed this skill to the point where I ‘know’ which shops to go into and which to avoid, whether I’m wasting my time or not and whether I need to buy something that I’ve tried on (I even wrote a book about this skill, and started an unsuccessful blog; now I’m resigned to using this skill for my own betterment, rather than that of humankind!)

As a former 12-step person, I’m constantly scanning my behaviour to ascertain whether it’s slipping into compulsive buying territory. I’m also aware that my shopping hobby gives me a kick because there are so many less consumer-oriented, more social pastimes that are just too hard. In some ways, too, it’s been a kind of return from exile to an earlier preoccupation: coming from an all-girl family, I grew up adoring clothes, but ditched that interest entirely when I became a radical feminist at the age of 19. For over a decade I lost the ability to dress in a way that suited me, and my shopping adventures have enabled me to gradually recover that. I also don’t spend that much on other forms of entertainment like restaurants and the cinema.

But of course, following fashion in a time of catastrophic global warming seems frivolous to say the least. This is something that I struggle with. I sometimes rationalise that by buying towards the end of the retail cycle I am not really a part of it. But this is not true: when you pay full price for a piece of clothing (which I do only rarely) you’re subsidising the likes of me. The full price of an item takes into account that a certain percentage of stock will not ‘move’ until offered at a discount price. So my bargain-hunting behaviour is definitely factored into the entire retail equation.

Ethics and sustainability
I also struggle with the notion that, because I mainly buy from the cheaper chain stores, I’m subsidising cruelty – the appalling working conditions at some Chinese factories, as well as the sometimes equally dreadful conditions Australian outworkers face.

Plus I’m contributing to the many problems caused by China’s reliance on coal – global warming, poor conditions at coal mines, and dangerous levels of pollution. China burns more coal than any other country, and 80 per cent of its electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. To feed its giant economy, it’s starting new coal-fired power stations at an estimated rate of between one and two a week. As well as illness and deaths caused by carbon pollution, at least six coal miners die on the job in China every single day – the figure used to be higher.

Now, I’m not so sure that buying at the higher end of the market – designer clothes or even upmarket chains like Country Road (a label I buy from very occasionally, and only at sale time) – would make much difference to this. After all, Country Road clothes are also manufactured in China.

However, it does make sense to buy more expensive clothes that last longer, and buy fewer of them. The quality of Country Road clothes, for example, is surprisingly good. They wear so well that you can easily find yourself wearing an item over three fashion seasons.

Buying an item that you will get much more wear out of is surely better for the environment than buying something you only wear three or four times, but it does not resolve the ethical dilemma of workers’ conditions. I’d like to think that workers making clothes of that calibre have to be treated a bit better to keep the quality up, eg needing to complete fewer garments per hour, but I have no idea whether or not that’s the case.

And buying a garment manufactured in Australia doesn’t necessarily let you off the ethical hook. I bought a top recently from a cheap chain store, Supre. The top had a tag on it proudly declaring something along the lines of ‘Made in Australia – bringing jobs back home’. But this doesn’t mean that the workers who made the top weren’t exploited; they could have been piece workers paid at appalling rates. Despite much community activism, the Australian Government has so far failed to end the exploitation of these workers.

An Australian organisation fighting worker exploitation in the garment manufacturing industry is the FairWear campaign.

They’ve introduced a Home worker’s Code of Practice that they lobby manufacturers and retailers to sign. Manufacturers who have signed it are entitled to include a No Sweat Shop label on their clothes. While the list of companies that are signatories is currently disappointingly limited (but significantly includes Bonds, Collette Dinnigan and Maggie T), whether more sign up really depends on pressure from consumers: if they think we don’t care, they will do nothing.

The Code has been signed by many more retailers than manufacturers. These retailers include Big W, K Mart, Country Road, Target, Sussan, David Jones and David Lawrence (Witchery hasn’t signed, and nor has Supre, which I mentioned above). However, the obligations of retailers are far less onerous than those of manufacturers, and they may not even be selling clothes with the No Sweat Shop label. Of the duties of the retailer signatories, The FairWear website says:

If a retailer is provided with evidence that a supplier is not meeting their obligations in relation to the Code or relevant Awards and legislation, the retailer will inform the non-compliant supplier that if the problem is not resolved, all of the supplier’s products will be removed from the retailer’s stores and will not be sold. Such action from Code Signatories has proven to be an effective method in changing the behavior of unethical manufacturers.

FairWear’s website includes a sample letter to send to retailers who haven’t signed the code.

FairWear should be lauded for its work. But why does the federal government allow such a code to be voluntary? It should be law, not something you sign up for because you fear a consumer backlash. And what happens if the garments are sourced from overseas? How much control can the retailer have over the manufacturing process in that instance? And how do we actually know that the retailers are sticking to their promise – who is keeping tabs?

Meanwhile, a group of FairWear supporters have started their own Facebook page, at

However, action on this front doesn’t stop the problems of coal-powered electricity, pollution, and global warming.

Ethics and sustainability – recycling
Buying second hand clothes offers a way out for many consumers concerned with ethics and sustainability. One thing I’ve become very good at in the last few years is throwing clothes out that I don’t wear any more, and taking them to my favourite op shop (I’m quite fussy about this – I think some op shops charge too much, and I don’t support them). I now have culls every three months or so, and it feels good. I also buy a lot of books and household goods from op shops.

But, truth to tell, I don’t buy a lot of clothes from them. I think it’s partly my taste, but also because the clearance prices at Target put some of the price tags at op shops to shame. I think e-bay and the idea of on-selling is at least partly to blame for this. Op shops want to give their low-income customers a bargain, but they don’t want their shops to be free-for-alls for those who will just clear the store and resell the underpriced stock at exorbitant prices. However, I think they sometimes overdo the pricing and many op shop clothes are simply too expensive for what you get.

Buying clothes on e-bay and vintage clothes stores are other well-known alternatives to buying new. Another option is the growing trend of clothes swapping – in Australia, The Clothing Exchange holds regular clothes swapping events.

Ethics and sustainability – new clothes
Sustainable, and in some cases ethically produced, fashion seems to be a growing market, although the GFC may have damaged it somewhat. This article has a great list of fashion labels that produce sustainable clothing that are available in Australia (it’s not always clear whether they’re ethical in terms of working conditions). And a great sustainable clothing range can be found at – again, the website doesn’t mention ethics.

Fashion facism
There’s another, much less urgent but still significant issue that being interested in clothes brings up. If you set aside the fashionable aspect of clothes for a minute, most people need to own a set of clothes suitable for a variety of different weathers and occasions. It concerns me that much of the ‘fashionable’ clothing this year doesn’t even offer the most basic of choices for women in some areas.

Take sundresses. There are two lengths available – above the knee (the mini dress) and down to the feet (the maxi dress). Embarrassingly short, or uncomfortably, impractically long. The embarrassingly short is perfect for young ‘gels’ who are happy to show off their legs (although I don’t imagine all young women feel comfortable doing this), but the ridiculously long version of the sundress is another extreme, and merely brings out the paranoid feminist in me: why, on a 34–45 degree day, would you want to be burdened with a dress that covers your entire body? For years we’ve had a huge variety of sundresses available that skirt the knee – not this year.

Talking about skirts, things are even worse on that front. This year’s miniskirts are in the main ridiculously short compared with last year’s, showing a substantial amount of thigh. Again, that’s fine if you’re an 18-year-old out on the town with your mates. But this silly length includes work skirts: retailers are happy to pressure women into wearing embarrassing, impractical clothes in the work place.

There are many reasons why women may not want to reveal that much leg, apart from feeling vulnerable and having to be careful while sitting down. Some of us have knobbly knees; some of us have prominent veins; some of us have thighs we don’t particularly like. In a youth-obsessed culture we’re told not to reveal our legs if they don’t literally shape up; but at the same time fashion wants to force us to. Liposuction, anyone?

Retailers who pretend to offer genuine choice in fact do the opposite. Country Road recently released an upmarket new label, Trenery, designed for an older demographic and selling in a new set of stores. You’d think that offering skirts and dresses below the knee would be one of its basic objectives. Instead, the catalogue features a tall young woman with long skinny legs wearing – you guessed it – dresses above the knee! There are also lots of very short shorts available for the daring older woman who’s happy to reveal all.

Please don’t even start me on the towering high heels we’re supposed to totter around in. I’m not joking when I say that they should come with a government health warning along the lines of ‘if you wear these shoes for two hours or more you run the risk of significant spinal, ankle and/or foot damage’.

Real choice
But consumers do have choices: the choice not to buy clothing from retailers who couldn’t care less about their supply chains, or fashions that degrade women; and to consider sustainable options. Although I only buy clothes I feel comfortable with, I don’t think I could easily give up my love of fashion altogether. But I can tell retailers and manufacturers what I think of their contempt for workers’ rights, only buy when I need to, investigate sustainable clothing, and refuse to participate in the most misogynistic aspects of fashion.


  1. Hello Catherine,

    I must still be very naive, because I didn't realise that such sweatshop and outworker practices still existed in Australia. It's appalling.

    The Fairwear site is excellent, and I have added a link to it on my journal blog. Thank you.

    I have always struggled with my weight, and perhaps that's the reason that fashion has never really interested me greatly for my own purposes. I never think I look good in anything, so I stick to what I am comfortable in, which is often just jeans and T-shirt - which probably don't suit me anyhow, but most times I don't really care, as long as I'm clean, comfortable and respectable.

    You have highlighted some excellent points, and have written a very interesting article. I enjoy your writing very much, and your choice of subjects is nearly always of genuine interest to me.

    Keep up your excellent blogging.


  2. Hi Gaye,

    Glad you enjoyed the blog entry. At the moment I still haven't reconciled my love of fashion with my concern for the environment, workers' rights etc, but I'm working on it.

    It's interesting how people differ in their approach to clothes -- your approach sounds saner than mine! I love clothes, and putting different combinations together, but sometimes it would be nice to not worry so much about what I was wearing -- it's both a creative outlet and a bit of a time waster. However, growing up with three (and later four) fashion-conscious sisters it was always going to catch up with me eventually :)