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Exploring the “Dark Side of Fashion” at RMIT

After writing about the ethics of fast fashion for this article, I was inquisitive to further explore the topic, so I recently visited RMIT University’s exhibit, Fast Fashion: The dark side of fashion, to understand the impact of the fashion industry on society, the environment and communities.

I was struck by a comment I saw in the exhibit handbook: “Only wastefulness brings you prestige”. Unfortunately, our capitalist way of living encourages consumption, since it provides economic growth, which is important for job creation and the stability of our country’s economy.

Fashion is also the way we express ourselves and our personal identity, but we need to stop for a second and think this through! How much is enough? Consider this. Shopping excites, it’s addictive, why?

Shopping is not about possessing things, it’s about the euphoria felt when purchasing something, especially when it’s of good value or cheap. It’s no different to a drug, as it provides a shot of dopamine, influencing the reward system in the brain. And this is exactly what retailers hope for when they try and attract or perhaps lure customers to their websites and stores.

The successful existence and growth of opportunity shops in Australia is a by-product of our wealth and over-consumption. We are throwing away perfectly good things simply because marketers tell us we need to replace them all the time with the latest and greatest.

Here are a few things I learned at the Fast Fashion exhibit:

  • The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world.
  • Workers in overseas garment factories often start at age 12 and earn $3 a day.
  • Toxic chemicals in textiles not only make workers sick, they may also be absorbed through the skin of the people wearing the clothes. Some of these chemicals are carcinogenic.
  • A piece of clothing travels 40,000km on average from manufacture to disposal.
Poiosonous chemicals in river

A river of purple dye -Toxic Chemical runoff from a textile factory in Asia Courtesy: RMIT – Fast Fashion/Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe

David Jones, which scored a B+ in the latest Baptist World Aid Fashion Report, a vast improvement from its D rating in 2013, has now launched the Ethical Trading Initiative, an ambitious roadmap to “support continuous improvement in ethical sourcing in relation to the conditions and well-being of people working along our supply chain, business ethics, environmental sustainability and animal welfare.”

The retailer requires all its private labels to undergo audits through Sedex, the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange, which provides better visibility into issues such as fair working conditions in factories. It’s not clear, though, whether it addresses livable wages for workers, which is not to be mistaken with minimum or competitive wages.

Workers can earn as little as 16 cents US an hour. This may be the going rate, but it’s not a livable wage. It’s estimated that only 1 or 2 per cent of the retail value of a garment actually goes to the highly skilled worker who made the item of clothing.

Patagonia is a good example of an omnichannel retailer that is an international trailblazer in ethical sourcing and environmental sustainability.

A 2012 report by AMP suggests that while retailers have traditionally seen relocation to areas with cheaper labour as a preferred strategy to cut costs, building sustainable supply chains with long-term relationships with suppliers is more successful in the long term.

Companies that are only focused on cost-cutting by employing the cheapest suppliers are generally at relatively high risk.

It’s interesting to note that strategies such as moving production to lower-wage inland China are offset by higher transport and logistics costs in getting the raw materials inland and the finished goods out, since internal transport infrastructure is still poor.

Manufacturing in areas where wages do not cover basic living expenses can lead to disruption and quality issues.

Consumption is power, just like voting. Shoppers need to shop responsibly and demand to know where, how and who make their garments, and retailers with a purpose will survive into the future.

At the same time, many retailers, especially those in fashion, are struggling to retain relevance and use low pricing as a strategy to churn cash. However, businesses with a defined purpose beyond profit are going to be tomorrows winners.

A fine example of this is Nourished Life, which recently received a $20 million buy out. Nourished Life is all about stocking cosmetics and other items that are free of harmful chemicals. This has helped them build a loyal, engaged customer base who care about the same things, and attract investment from larger companies.

It’s a lot harder for a corporation to develop a purpose and following than a passionate entrepreneur. Another example is Kester Black, a manufacturer and online retailer of vegan-based cruelty-free nail polishes.

For further enlightenment learn more about the documentary “The True Cost“.

Mark Freidin is the co-founder of Internet Retailing and writes a weekly opinion column about the e-commerce industry.

Have a burning question or idea you want to share? Email Mark at

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