Slavery and child labour in the fashion industry – how does it actually happen? Ethical supply chain consultant Kate Nicholl explains. 

When we walk into a department store and buy a new clothing item, we know the store did not make the item. But do we question, who did actually make it? When we buy clothing from a reputable brand and it is expensive, we make an assumption that it must have been made to a high quality in a high-end garment factory. But how do we know? When we buy something and it is a real bargain, do you ever wonder how the brand managed to produce it so cheaply? What is the difference between a cheap t-shirt and the three times more expensive t-shirt in the shop next door with a different label on it?

Earlier this year World Baptist Aid released The Australian Fashion Report 2015 (PDF, 3.5MB) on fast fashion. It rated the majority of Australian fashion retailers from best to worst in ethical sourcing. However, it is still difficult for us to see how our daily purchases contribute to the ongoing practices of exploiting labour in third world countries. In recent decades a huge growth in consumerism, coupled with demand for lower prices, has driven retailers to extend their sources of supply far afield, where they can pay workers less and meet customers’ expectations as well as grow profits.

So, let me break down the supply chain in simple terms. We go into a fashion store such as Myer or Cotton On or Witchery, and buy a cotton t-shirt. This company has sourced the item of clothing from a direct supplier – a distributor or a factory – usually in China or South Asia. The brand has a contract with the direct supplier. The prices, quality standards and safety standards in the contract are only applicable to this direct supplier. The retailer puts their full trust in the supplier to gather materials and source labour ethically, responsibly, and safely. The direct supplier will buy the fabric from a further source. That fabric supplier will purchase the cotton from a further source. At this stage of the chain the retailer has absolutely no visibility of where these materials are coming from. And this is where the human rights and environmental issues lurk.

Uzbekistan is the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton and has become infamous for its systematic use of child labour in harvesting in the cotton fields. As this became a known issue, a number of retailers boycotted Uzbekistan cotton in their supply chain. Can you know the t-shirt you bought today wasn’t made with cotton harvested by children? The simple answer is no, you can’t know. The retailers don’t know either. Because there is no visibility through the whole chain.

There are two actions we can take as consumers. First, research brands that are ethically sourced and certified by the three main certification groups – Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade or UTZ. Second, talk about it with each other, on social media, and directly to your favourite non-certified brands to drive awareness and change. Ultimately the retailers are there to serve us, so with our buying choices the power lies with us.

Read more articles by Kate on The Ministry Consultants blog

2 thoughts on “What is the human cost of your t-shirt?

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