You have found the perfect dress. You’ve tried it before and you know it looks good. Now it’s on sale, a discount so big that the store almost gives it away. Are you going to buy it?
For some of us, it’s a no-brainer. For others, it’s an ethical dilemma when shopping for clothes. What does more mean? How was the item made or how much did it cost? Is the most important information on the label or price tag?
Of the world industries that profit from the exploitation of workers, the fashion industry is notorious, in part because of the stark contrast between how fashion is produced and how it is marketed.
There are more people working under exploitative conditions than ever before. Globally, the apparel industry employs millions of people, with 65 million garment industry workers in Asia alone. The Clean Clothes campaign estimates that less than 1 percent of what you pay for a typical garment goes to the workers who made it.
Some work in conditions that are so exploitative that they meet the definition of being modern slaves – trapped in situations they can not leave due to coercion and threats.
But their situation is hidden by the distance between the worker and the buyer. Global supply chains have helped such utilization to hide and thrive.
Do we really care and what can we do?
We conducted in-depth interviews with 21 women who buy “fast fashion” – “on-trend” clothes made and sold at very low cost – to find out how much they care about the conditions of the workers who make their clothes, and what they do to prevent slave-making clothing. Well-known fast-fashion brands include H&M, Zara and Uniqlo.
What they told us highlights the inadequacy of trying to eradicate exploitation in the fashion industry by relying on consumers to carry out the heavy lifting. Consumers struggle to seek reliable information on ethical practices and become overwhelmed when trying to navigate ethical consumerism.
Out of sight, out of mind
The 21 participants in our research were women aged 18 to 55 with diverse backgrounds across Australia. We selected participants who were aware of exploitation in the fashion industry, but who had still bought solid fashion in the previous six months. This was not a study but qualitative research involving in-depth interviews to understand the interruption between consciousness and action.
Our central conclusion is that the physical and cultural distance of clothing consumers from those who make the clothes makes it difficult to relate to their experience. Even though we’ve seen pictures of sweatshops, it’s still hard to understand what working conditions really are like.
As Fiona *, a woman in her late 30s put it, “I do not think people care [but] it is not in an ugly way. It’s like an out of sight, out of mind situation. “
This problem of geographical and cultural distance between clothing workers and fashion buyers highlights the lack of solutions based on driving change in the industry through consumer activism.
Who is responsible?
Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, for example, only tackles the problem by requiring large companies to report to a public register on their efforts to identify risks of modern slavery in their supply chains and what they are doing to eliminate those risks.
While greater transparency is certainly a major step forward for the industry, the legislation still presupposes that the threat of damage to reputation is enough to make industry actors change their ways.
The success of legislation depends to a large extent on the ability of activist organizations to see through and publicize companies’ performance in an effort to encourage consumers to hold companies accountable.
All of our interviewees told us that they felt unfairly burdened with the responsibility of seeking information about working conditions and ethical practices in order to hold retailers accountable or to feel empowered to make the “correct” ethical choice.
“It’s sometimes too hard to actually trace the line of whether something is made ethically,” said Zoe *, a woman in her early 20s.
Given that many retailers themselves are unaware of their own supply chains, it takes a lot to expect the average consumer to unravel the truth and make ethical purchasing choices.
Confusion + overwhelm = passivity
“We have to act on what we care about, what’s in line with our values, family values, budget,” said Sarah *, who is in her early 40s.
She said she copes with feeling overwhelmed by ignoring some issues and focusing on the ethical actions she knew would make a difference. “I do so many other good things,” she said. “We can not be perfect and I can only do so much.”
Other participants also talked about juggling reflections on environmental and social impacts.
“It’s made in Bangladesh, but it’s 100 percent cotton, so I do not know, is it ethical?” so said Lauren *, a woman in her early 20s. “It depends on what qualifies as ethical […] and what’s just marketing. “
By comparison, participants felt that their actions to mitigate environmental damage made a tangible difference. They could see the impact and felt rewarded and empowered to continue making positive changes. This was not the case for modern slavery and labor rights more generally.
Fast fashion is a lucrative market with billions in profits thanks to the work of the lowest paid workers in the world.
There is no doubt that consumers have a lot of power, and we should not absolve consumers for their part in creating demand for the cheapest clothes humanly – or inhumanely – possible.
But consumer choice alone is insufficient. We need a system where all our clothing choices are ethical, where we do not have to make a choice between what is right and what is cheap.
Names of survey participants have been changed to protect their anonymity.
Tara Stringer is a PhD candidate, Alice Payne is an Associate Professor of Fashion and Gary Mortimer is a Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behavior at Queensland University of Technology. This piece first appeared on The Conversation.