15 July 2013

Clothing Swap - and a one-year commitment

We have done lots of things to reduce our global footprint since we began this 'one more thing per month' commitment back in May 2009. A skim over the blog archive shows we have made attempts to live more sustainably on many fronts, but I have been aware for some time there is a gaping omission in my commitments: clothing.

In June, one of the women at our church arranged an after-worship clothing swap. She was a bit overwhelmed by the volume of discarded clothing that arrived for redistribution. 

I took four bags of clothes, and came home with one bag for me and another one for a dress-up box for Eva (collected from the unwanted items being packed up at the end).

The clothing swap ran over two weeks, so we could take things home to try and return them the following week if they didn't suit. A visiting group of young people the second week helped quite a lot of the items find a new home - they could not believe their luck to be told all the clothes were free!

So, I have slightly reduced my wardrobe's load. The next step, and the one I have been actively avoiding for a while, is to commit to not refilling it with unethical garments. As this blog is called 'Small Steps' I have finally decided it is OK to commit to a small step only at this stage: for the 2013-14 financial year, I will not purchase any items of clothing for myself that are not ethically sourced and/or second-hand.

Its a small step only because I have not included clothing purchases for the children, and I have not committed to more than twelve months. 

A great deal of the clothes my children wear are hand-me-downs (to those who have passed clothes on to me for the kids - thank you! - you know who you are. Especially you who keep on handing on the next sizes after we grow past the welcome truckload of baby clothes) but just last week I bought Eva a whole pile of leggings - 'soft pants' - as she won't wear anything else at present and suddenly grew out the top and through the bottom of nearly all her existing such garments. They were $7 each and I knew as I purchased them that it could not be possible for everyone in the supply chain to have been paid and cared for appropriately for their work in making them. Eva will fit into them for a year if I am lucky. I am still struggling to commit to paying what I should be for clothes that will need replacing next year.

My first thought is that I may well simply buy nothing for myself this year. I have enough clothes. I tend to buy clothes on a whim, not go searching for a specific item. Figures from 2007 showed Australians spent $10.4 billion on clothes in that year and estimated that by 2013 we would be spending close to $12.8 billion. An average Australian woman purchases 56 clothing items per year (men buy less - around 29). Aside from proving that I am not an average Australian woman, as I find this figure outrageous and can't imagine what I would do with more than one new item of clothes per week, these statistics illustrate that we are consuming clothing at an unsustainable rate.

The most obvious issue of concern in the clothing industry is the poor conditions and low pay of clothing manufacturing workers. The horror of over 1000 clothing workers dying in Bangladesh in April because their building collapsed on them has brought the issue of third-world factory conditions to western media attention, if briefly. It is perhaps less well known that between 50 and 70% of Australian-made clothing is produced by piece-workers, often migrant women with few choices, who work to ridiculous deadlines, generally in cramped conditions, and end up earning on average $5-$8 per hour. In Australia. And many earn less - $3 an hour is well-documented - while having no superannuation, holidays or workers' compensation, and often being required to provide and maintain their own machines and tools.

Besides the immediate human impact, there are also significant environmental issues involved in the production of clothes. All that fabric comes from somewhere - cotton fields heavily sprayed with pesticides are a big supplier; non-renewable petrochemical-based materials such as nylon, vinyl, spandex, acrylic and polyester account for a significant portion of my wardrobe. All manner of chemicals are used to turn those raw materials into clothes that are coloured, shaped, pressed, washed, displayed and packaged for our purchase. Like most things we consume, clothes have often travelled a long way to reach us - and not by solar vehicles. Much clothing ends up in landfill - sadly, large amounts get there without ever being worn, but even well-worn garments are generally destined to get to the tip in the end, and if they are not natural fibres, they will have a long and stinky life there.

Buying second-hand is better than buying unethical clothes brand new, but I am also slightly uneasy about it. I have had patches in my life when I could only afford clothes if purchased from an op shop - including when I needed to outfit myself for my first professional job. It frustrated me enormously that the best items were often picked out by bargain hunters who could have afforded to buy new clothes but liked op shops.  I promised myself then that when I had a real income I would leave op shop goodies for those who had no other options. Another friend follows a policy of always paying double the shelf price when buying from an op shop. I don't entirely avoid second-hand stores, but it will be a challenge in the coming year to buy ethical, not just to avoid buying new at all.

Initial Time: Clothing swap: half an hour going through my clothes. I would have liked to take longer but it was not to be. Perhaps I was more ruthless because I was in a hurry. The clothing swap itself was a lovely friendly chat with friends while having a cuppa and wandering among rows of clothes - I don't consider it time 'spent'.
Twelve-month commitment: much thinking; no actual set-aside time. 

Initial Cost: Zero

Ongoing time or cost commitment: I am guessing individual garments will cost more, but cutting out impulse buying will mean the overall cost is about even. Similarly, time spent hunting for ethical brands will be an addition, but no longer meandering into any old clothing store that says 'sale' should be a time-saver.

Impact: Clothing swap: many of us reduced our wardrobes while adding a few items at no cost to us, to workers or to the environment; fifteen bags of clothing were gathered up at the end and passed on to charity shops. Not bad for a church gathering that has about 40 adults present on any given week.
Twelve-month commitment: I can't quantify it but I hope it will be two-fold: (1) ceasing to provide funds to clothing companies with unethical practices (2) actively financially supporting producers and retailers who are doing the right thing. I suspect it may also have the impact of changing my heart towards clothing. Just a couple of hours tonight researching this issue to write this blog have me already more concerned and willing to act differently than I have been in a long while.

I will try to let you know how this works out for me over the coming year.


Slightly old but useful SMH article on Australian fashion cycles, consumer trends and their environmental and social impacts. Scroll to the almost-bottom for the 'life-cycle of fast fashion'. 

Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) - formerly 'No Sweat' - the Australian accreditation scheme for ethical clothing

About Ethical Clothing Australia

Shop Ethical's info on Ethical Clothing Australia and on outworkers (homeworkers) in Australia

Shop Ethical's list of (as of today 120) clothing brands with ethical credentials - fair trade, organic, Australian made, alternative fibres, second hand etc, vegan (?!) and ECA-accredited. Listed in table-form showing which of these the brand gets a tick for, with links to the websites of each brand.

Fair Wear Australia - 'aims to end the exploitation of workers in the garment industry, in Australia and overseas'

Textile Clothing and Footwear Workers Union of Australia - includes information on various issues, and campaigns to participate in (eg. recent work to raise money for victims and families effected by the Bangladesh factory collapse)

Labour Behind the Label - 'supporting garment workers worldwide' - lots of campaigns to be involved in, with a resource section of research and information

Indigo Bazaar - funky-looking online fairtrade clothing shop. I haven't shopped there... yet

Check the comments section for more links or to add your own.


  1. From Fleur:


    Radio National Background Briefing
    Closed shops: Kmart pledges to open foreign factories to inspectors

  2. From Elise:

    http://www.eternalcreation.com have beautiful clothes.

    If you go through the sales they can be reasonable for adult clothes.

  3. From Danielle:


    Apart from the transport, these guys tick every box for me. The t-shirts are fairtrade and 100% organic cotton, the designs have messages I like to spread, and after testing them out myself I am happy to recommend them.