Wardrobe boot camp: how to shop for ethical fashion

Editor’s note: This is regular series in which we help Styling You readers solve a particular wardrobe or clothing crisis with a little advice and some shopping suggestions. If you think you’d like to be considered as part of a Wardrobe Boot Camp post, then please email me (nikki@stylingyou.com.au) with a couple of photos and a brief run down of what specific help you would like.

Melissa is the director of a boutique PR agency who is looking for advice on how to be more ethical with her fashion purchasing choices.

SY reader Melissa asks about ethical fashion

The Plea 

I’m actually pretty happy with my style. I like quality pieces, comfortable and a little bit quirky, that can take me from work to shopping to out. A decade in London with frequent work (shopping!) trips to the US has left me with some fabulous quality pieces. My favourite places to shop are Anthropologie, Jaeger, Whistles, and in Australia, Seed, Country Road, and following your post last year, Elk Accessories.

Following the recent horrific factory fire in Bangladesh, I want to be more ethical with my fashion choices. I guess I want to apply the “seasonal eating” approach to my fashion choices – locally designed and made, good quality materials and great fit and function. More like Elk, I guess.

That’s not to say I’ll be ignoring the bigger players. I think it’s really important that we continue to support companies who provide employment opportunities that are fair and safe in countries like Bangladesh, India, China (and to put pressure on those who aren’t transparent about where their garments are made) but I’d really like some guidance on where to find fun, fabulous and ethical fashion locally.

I’m a director in a boutique PR agency specialising in health and wellness – client meetings are usually quite corporate; otherwise the workplace is pretty relaxed. I work four days a week and have an almost three-year-old daughter (it’s much easier applying my fashion ethics to her wardrobe – thank you oishi-m, Paul & Paula, eeni meeni miini mo!). My husband is currently taking a career break so for the next year or so my expensive-label fetish will need to be limited to my existing shoe and bag collection purchased during “The London Years”.

The tips

Consider the can of worms and the conversation around this topic well and truly open, Melissa.

It’s a conversation I think we need to have. It’s a tricky one and I think the best result that can come from the conversation is that all companies, big and small, have greater transparency around where they source their fabrics, where their clothes are made and the conditions under which they are made.

It’s absolutely tragic that it takes the Bangladesh factory disaster to this week bring about global action with some time deadlines in that country. You can read about that here.

Closer to home, I’ve also learned over the years that just because it’s made in Australia, doesn’t mean that it’s been ethically manufactured by Australian workers earning an award-based wage.

I also understand that every reader here at Styling You operates under different household budgetary constraints. It is not easy to feed and clothe a family.

I, like many others, frequently shop at discount department stores. This blog is about accessible fashion for all.

I’ve also been paid to represent a clothing line at a discount department store, something I would consider if the opportunity arose again. At the time I asked the question about where the clothes were made and the conditions under which they were manufactured. I was satisfied with the answers I received at the time.

The concept of fast fashion – fashion chain stores translating trends and getting them in stores within weeks of their appearance on the international catwalks – has become seemingly entrenched in the industry. As part of the bigger picture, I think it’s timely to think about the part we may or may not play in that fast fashion process.

So with all the above prefacing my tips and this conversation starter, let’s get stuck in …

1. Let your fingers do the clicking. A good start is a visit to the websites of your favourite fashion labels and stores. Do they have a company statement about their social responsibility and ethical trade? Check out Country Road’s here.

2. If your favourite stores don’t have a social responsibility statement on their websites or if the statement doesn’t answer your questions, send an email to them for more information. Making an informed decision as to where you spend your fashion dollars is a good first step to ethical fashion shopping.

3. Visit Ethical Clothing Australia. This organisation includes a list of Australian labels which have applied for and received accreditation to ensure Australian workers receive fair wages and decent conditions. Labels that we frequently feature on Styling You and are listed here include Metalicus, Cue and Veronika Maine.

4. Create and build a minimalist wardrobe based on classic pieces that last. This is the cornerstone of slow fashion. Simple living advocate and blogger Brooke McAlary lives by this and has guest posted about how to do it.

5.  Buy or swap pre-loved clothes. I’m not a thrift shopper owing to growing up with op shop clothes (yes, I have many first world issues) but I’m not adverse to swapping clothes with girlfriends, particularly for special occasions. I also hired a special occasion garment recently. To me that represents less waste and a more sustainable industry. For great op shopping tips, B Being Cool is your thrifting partner in crime.

6. Shop at local markets or online at places like Etsy. Generally speaking, the smaller the operation, the closer to home the garment or accessory has been made. I’d still be asking questions about where the fabrics and materials used have been sourced if you are wanting to be strictly ethical in your choices.

Shopping

I’ve created a work outfit for Melissa, featuring Australian labels which are either listed with Ethical Clothing Australia or have a public social responsibility statement on their websites.

Australian ethical fashion | workwear

1. Cue top $99 | 2. Veronika Maine skirt $99 | 3. Metalicus trench $229.95 |  4. Elk bracelet $36.50 | 5. Elk bag $195 | 6. Country Road heels $179

Ok, let’s get this conversation going. Are you thinking more about where you shop? Are you prepared to ask your favourite stores questions about where and how they manufacture their garments and accessories? How do you balance budgetary considerations with ethics? Any other tips for Melissa?

UPDATE 1:  Audrey Blue is the first and the only (at this stage) Australian women’s clothing label who has secured the highest international order of clothing and textiles certification. It’s called GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and they are also FLO (Fairtrade International) certified.

Audrey Blue director Hannah Parris is in London attending today’s eco-fashion industry conference Source Summit 2013 hosted by the visionary Ethical Fashion Forum.

Ms Parris said at this year’s London Fashion Week exhibition, almost a third of showcasing brands had a sustainability focus. “In London, they see there’s a real opportunity to build on this momentum,” she said.

“Australia can build on the momentum of the recent well publicised concerns and become leaders in the sustainability field. Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are hotbeds for fashion innovation. Labels and retailers in these big cities have the opportunity to not only build on the momentum discussed by London’s fashion elite, but make it mainstream – make it the cultural norm.”

UPDATE 2: Protesters in safety masks and bodysuits gathered affront the Just Jeans’ Melbourne CBD store yesterday demanding The Just Group sign The Accord on Fire & Building Safety in Bangladesh. More details here. The Just Group includes Just Jeans, JayJays, Jacqui E, Peter Alexander, Portmans, Dotti and Smiggle.

UPDATE 3: Kmart has pledged to reveal the locations of all the factories it uses, as Australian retailers face continued pressure over the mistreatment of garment factory workers in Bangladesh. More details here.

UPDATE 4: Thanks to Leahlovesarts in the comments below for flagging this TEDxNoosa talk from the designers behind Sinerji.

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  • Qinnie Wang

    Hello Nikki, great article, and I hope that it doesn’t cost another tragedy to bring up this topic again. I totally agree with you that consumer have the power to make changes, to make things right. That’s why I founded Oz Fair Trade, a charity that aims to alleviate poverty through fair trade. I believe that if people can see that fair trade and ethical fashion don’t mean higher prices and that they are often of higher quality, they will make the switch. One day, I hope that fair trade will be industry standard across the globe.

  • janes

    i love this blog and concept…………………..

    http://www.snipsofvb.com/

  • Dee

    Hello Nikki – another “de-lurker” here… This was such a good article. I always check the lables on clothes and try to buy Australian made clothes (lots of Country Road & Metalicus (with Aussie wool), with some Veronica Maine (purchased on sale). I am mindful of the fact that we have our own sweat shops (illegal) here in Australia, though – I remember seeing a documentary/expose some years back. Loved Brooke McAllery’s minimalist approach and the TED talk.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Thanks for de-lurking Dee … and glad you liked this post!

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  • Ally

    Hi Nikki – as a regular reader, I’m de-lurking to make this rather lengthy comment. I want to preface it by saying that I love your blog and appreciate this post. I have made a number of purchases directly inspired by you or your commenters, and especially love your Model and Me and Keeping it Real posts.

    Another aspect of the ethics of fashion/clothing, including the environmental impact, is lifecycle. This includes learning basic mending skills; looking after your clothing/bags/shoes; shopping your own wardrobe (a topic you have posted on frequently); not over-washing or drycleaning your clothes too frequently; and finally, completing the cycle by donating or swapping them (another topic covered here previously). My parents ran their own business for years when I was a child, making circuit boards for Hoover washing machines and dryers. The men (as it was then) at Hoover had a saying “Australians wash clean clothes”. A useful thing to remember – washing wears clothes out, and is often unnecessary, particularly if you can sponge and air clothing before re-wearing.

    Even if you are not interested in the environmental impact of your post-purchase use of clothing, but are focused more on the direct human impact of fashion production, careful washing and maintenance means lower overall consumption. A good thing both for the planet and the people on it.

    Cheers
    Ally

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Ally, I’m very glad you have de-lurked! Your comment is spot on and yes, we have become too accustomed to the throw-away mentality … another thing to be mindful of.

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  • Johanne Taylor

    Thanks for this Nikki. It’s something I have been thinking about a lot lately following a holiday to Vietnam and Cambodia, where between the real poverty I saw lots of Aussies having mountains of clothes and shoes copied from what they’d brought with them in Hoi An. It just seemed like too much ‘stuff’ that was being made and bought because it was cheap rather than needed.
    On top of that we are downsizing in a few months and I know it will be difficult to fit the clothes and accessories I already own into the new place, let alone anything I add to it by shopping. I have never been one for $3 t-shirts, but I have been trying to only replace things that need replacing and not buy anything additional.
    Those things I have been buying need to be beautiful things that I love and will last. I’m now going to add ethically sourced to my list of requirements, and I think with that checklist I won’t be buying much- but I’m actually really feeling good about that.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Downsizing helps to be mindful over every purchase, doesn’t it? From your previous comments you seem to buy quite mindfully and seek quality over quantity so you’re in a good position, I think.

  • Kerri

    I never saw the original 4 Corners story, but have course seen the horrific scenes of suffering on the news and listened to RN last Sunday which was about the issue. They interviewed someone from Dragstar, ethical fashion from Sydney. It was the first time I had really heard an Australian designer being linked with ethical fashion choices. I ordered a dark blue dress (I had been on the hunt since your post Nikki) and a shirt, both were beautifully made pieces. Great service as well. I admit though that I do buy things because I love them and have really not given much of a thought to their point of origin in the past.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Me too Kerri … I think all these little changes do make a difference though. Thanks for the heads up re Dragstar http://www.dragstar.com.au/

  • Belinda @ MyOodle

    I think it’s time we all took stock and actioned these ideals. Whilst I’ve broken it twice I’m attempting to wear what I have this year. I found I had dresses that had been out once and a couple that were yet to be worn…..make the most of what you have and choose to not go shopping for a defined period of time. It’s been more rewarding that I thought.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      That’s a good thing to do – almost like a detox to get you thinking more mindfully about future purchases.

  • Melissa Chlad

    Nikki, thanks so much for this! I love your recommendations. And I’m loving reading the comments too – it’s funny how the ‘mindfulness’ approach has taken awhile to get into our collective consciousness regarding fashion. And I’m taking the same approach with my daughter’s toys too – another minefield!

    And thanks everyone who said my daughter is pretty cute – I think so too ;)

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Mindfulness is a powerful thing – and yes, kids’ toys … it just gets crazy. Luckily, my youngest is 8 and it slows down a bit when they get to school age.

  • Joanne Rimes

    Thank you, I wasn’t sure where to start with making ore thoughtful purchases when it comes to fashion. It’s a shame sites like ethical clothing Australia aren’t more visible/known. Well at least we can let out friends know.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      It’s only a relatively new site – I featured it when it launched last year. Would love to see more labels get on board with it too!

  • Vida M

    I really don’t see the need for this. I think that should a company wish to divulge this information, then so be it. If it withholds, I am sure it isn’t going to sway customers. We survived so many years on not knowing. Society has changed in the last few years, and I think it is heading down the path of extremism- almost like it is a brainwashing religion. Don’t get me wrong, i think it is terrible, but i really don’t think it sways my buying.

    Woolworths ‘macro’ brand is organic.. but ingredients sourced from China (where ‘Organic’ regulations are lacking and not as stringent as Australia’s). If customers actually looked on the pack to read that, do you think it would sway them? I don’t think so, cause in the end, it is cheaper and they only offer macro brand in the nuts aisle- if you have no choices, what else do you do?

    • Pagan

      You might not see a need for this, Vida, but others clearly do. Obviously our choices are limited in some areas, and there has to be a limit to the time one can spend researching options, but I think that as people become more aware many would prefer to make ethical (or more ethical) choices when they can.

      • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

        I thnk that’s what is happening. With awareness brings new value sets. Finding solid info to build that awareness is not so easy though.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      I hear what you’re saying but I think awareness of how our life impacts others is something to be mindful of. Everyone brings their own values to the situation. What I’m happy to buy others wouldn’t … Some will always be swayed, others never. Still think we should talk about it.

  • Em @ the beetle shack

    So great Nikki! I’m actually writing a series on this on my blog at the mo- I’ve made contact with the amazing owner of an ethical clothing boutique called Indigo Bazaar who will be guest posting next week. I’ve learnt so much about organic cottons, manufacturing and so on over the past couple of months- it’s a head spin and yes indeed, A Wriggling Can of Worms!

    Especially tricky to address for all of the reasons you’ve outlined above!

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Oh it’s a wriggling can of worms that’s for sure! I’ve not even really got into the organic side of things. Look forward to reading your post.

  • http://www.lovemeagainboutique.com.au/ Bev – Love Me Again Boutique

    A brilliant post Nikki – a topic that we all should focus more of our attention on. Well done for giving your community so much advice, because I guess all of us, at some point have been lured into buying a product on price rather than its ethical footprint.
    On a much lighter note…How cute is Melissa’s daughter? Just gorgeous.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Well said Bev and yes Melissa’s daughter is way too cute in that outfit.

  • beautyholicsanonymous

    I love this post, Nikki, and I’m so glad you wrote about it. I too have the same thoughts as Melissa. I’ve been happily purchasing clothes from Target, ZARA, etc (and proudly announce it too) until reality slapped me in the face with the tragedy at Bangladesh. After watching its feature on Four Corners, it put me in a big dilemma. Do I continue to feed my cheap clothes hunger from fast fashion retailers or pay a premium for ethically-sourced and created clothing? I don’t have the financial means to just buy the latter. Yet I don’t want to 100% stop buying from fast fashion retailers because there’s still a need to provide employment at countries like India, China and so on. I was torn all right.

    I love how you mentioned to create a minimalist wardrobe based on classic pieces that last. I’m slowly but surely getting there. I spend more on better quality but buy less. My wardrobe is filled with fast fashion items that were worn just a few times. Yet the more expensive but better quality ones were used a lot more.

    I’m not sure if you’ve read the book “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” but that really open my eyes, especially after the Rana Plaza tragedy.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Oh gosh, I know, I know … it’s like a badge of honour if we get a great clothing buy at a good price. I think asking the questions will put pressure on our favourite labels so they still source in developing countries but with a conscience that is supportive of good conditions for the workers in those countries. I haven’t read that book but will seek it out. Thanks x

    • Melissa Chlad

      I’ll be looking out for that book too.

  • bbeingcool

    I love this!

    I love that collectively those of us who love fashion, can impact the lives of others in the world…

    Thanks for linking to me! I love op-shopping, I love knowing that I am re-using and recycling in the process. This all starts with mindful shopping.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      I’ve got better at mindful shopping in recent years. Less stressful at home for me and also with that bigger picture stuff.

  • Lealovesarts

    Thanks Nicki for blogging about this issue. The girls from sunshine coast brand Sinerji recently discussed ethical fashion at TEDxNoosa. Check out YouTube for the video of their talk.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      I’ll go looking – thanks!

  • Housewife in Heels

    Thanks for this. I was very disturbed after watching the 4 corners episode re the Bangladesh fires. I’m now very suspicious of ridculously cheap clothing. If anyones in the market for GOTS accredited childrens wear, my friend has a label TresOrganics and sells GOTS accredited shirts.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      The thing I found even more scary was that it’s not just the super cheap labels implicated. Thanks for the tip off re TresOrganics.

  • Johanna

    A timely post and a hot potato topic that needs addressing. Yes, I’ve been guilty of buying so-called-bargains and ignoring the ‘made in Bangladesh’ tag knowing full well that probably the clothes are cheap for a not-very-nice-reason. Put my head conveniently in the sand and all that. But the more posts like this one, Nikki, addressing the ethics of our purchases bring me firmly to heel. I don’t need a wardrobe of cheap clothes (and I can anyway get cheap clothes on my occasional outings to Op Shops – or my ‘Visits to Harrods’ as I call them), and buying new should be about wearing clothes with pride knowing they have been produced fairly, not wearing them with a big guilty halo over my head. Thanks for a great post :)

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      I love that concept – wearing clothes with pride.

  • Julie

    Great post, Nikki. I am relieved to read Country Road and Metalicus are doing the right thing! This is an issue that concerns me, and one that I have to weigh up with my preference to buy NZ and Australian-designed (but unfortunately not always -made) clothing from locally owned-boutiques to reduce the carbon miles and keep locals in jobs. I agree with Lisa – as we embrace your tips about shopping from our own wardrobes and choosing quality over quantity, we are hopefully making a small difference xx

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Hi Julie, it’s not a simple thing is it? I think we can all make a bit of a contribution by being more mindful in our choices.

  • Janelle@awhitefarm

    Thankyou…I loooove this post Nikki!! xx

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      You’re welcome, Janelle x

  • http://kimbalikes.com Kim-Marie Williams

    One of the reasons I love op shopping so much is the ethical side of it. It is helping environmentally by applying the Reduce Reduce Recycle principle. It saves landfill. And it honours the past.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      And you are good at it Kim-Marie … without the issues I bring from my childhood!

  • Leonie Macleod

    Consumer backlash changed the cosmetic industry so hopefully we can bring about the same in garment manufacturing. Instead of “free of animal testing” we need to have a tag that says “free of human exploitation and environmental damage”

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      I like your thinking – it’s what Ethical Clothing Australia is championing!

    • http://kimbalikes.com Kim-Marie Williams

      Love this Leonie!

    • bbeingcool

      Oh yes – such a great idea!

      No more $3 t-shirts in our house (not that we ever did – not a fan of cheap clothes) we are certainly more mindful of where our clothes come from…. love this post Nikki!

  • Lisa Mckenzie

    Thankyou for these tips Nikki and Thankyou Melissa for bringing up this issue.I try to buy ethically made clothes,shoes and accessories but sometimes it is hard and however hard you try to find out about a product you don’t get the full answers.I do do thrift shopping and buy from Australian companies and I love Etsy and DTLL for cute handcrafted items.I used to be part of a swap group swapstyle.com but found it was getting way too expensive to post items ,so they had to be worth swapping for ,even though it is Australian founded a lot of US and Canadian people are on there,and to post an average sized parcel say a cardi is about $30 now it is not worth it,though I do own a vintage Vera Wang cashmere cardi and a DVF wrap dress and they were certainly worth swapping for.I would consider having a swap party as well.
    I don’t buy as much clothes as I used to,since your boot camp Nikki I try and shop from my wardrobe more but yes I am very interested in reducing my carbon footprint and supporting ethical companies.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      I think if this is all good Lisa. All our small efforts do make a difference collectively!

  • Flickster

    Thanks so much for this article. Its really helpful for us all to consider these issues when shopping….
    I hadn’t heard of “Ethical Clothing Australia”, so I am, as usual, learning something new from you Nikki! Thanks – love your blog.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      You’re welcome Flickster – I posted a small piece when ECA launched – it’s a good initiative because we immediately assume that if it’s Australian-made that it’s ethical.

  • Pagan

    I’m so glad you have written this post Nikki. As much as I love clothes, the whole ‘fashion’ thing (especially cheap, disposable fashion) makes me extremely uncomfortable. Worker’s rights and conditions, and environmental impact are my two biggest concerns. Although I’m back to a student’s income at the moment and therefore doing lots of op-shopping, in 2 1/2 years I’ll be after an ethically produced corporate wardrobe. I have a question – do you know how reliable a company’s claims on its website are? Are they monitored or regulated at all?

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      You don’t know how reliable they are Pagan and therein lies another problem. I do believe that the more transparent a company is though is a good step. I was disappointed to find that some of my fave brands don’t include this info on their sites. And then we have Ethical Clothing Australia – the brands have to apply for accreditation – so maybe that’s a better thing where an independent body assesses it. I guess it depend on how important this issue is to you and how far you want to take your research.

  • Sarah Watts

    So pleased to see this being discussed and thank you for the tips and links to be able to investigate further.

    It isn’t just the discount labels though, some of the more expensive labels aren’t necessarily ethical either as was seen in the Four Corners story on the Bangladesh fire. Expensive doesn’t equal ethical.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      That’s so true, Sarah. That’s why it pays to do the investigation on the labels that you love and buy.