Ethics behind clothing is difficult to navigate

Clothing sales are high in Canada, but the affordability of our clothes often depends on exploiting vulnerable people and resources.

Canadian clothing sales continue to increase, rising to $41.9 billion in 2015, according to Stats Canada.

“How can it be ethical? That’s what I would like to know,” said Kelly James, a graduate of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

James studied Fairtrade during her master’s program and liked the simplicity of Fairtrade products.

“You knew what they stood for,” said James.

Due to the complex nature of the fashion industry, creating a set of standards that apparel industries can easily adhere to, is far more complicated.

Fibres have to be grown, processed, and woven into material, which are then dyed and treated before being cut, sewn and transported. 

In contrast, the process for certifying Fairtrade coffee is far more straightforward as it only involves the growing process.

The real costs of fast fashion came into the spotlight following the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, where 1,134 textile workers were killed due to unsafe working conditions.

In response to this tragedy, a coalition of unions, labour rights and human rights advocates created a Transparency Pledge. Companies that align with the pledge agree to publish information about their factories, which is a step towards stopping and preventing abusive labour practices.

“A basic level of supply chain transparency in the garment industry should be the norm in the 21st century,” said Aruna Kashyap, senior counsel for the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch.

Everlane, a San Francisco based retail company, has taken it a step further by pledging radical transparency.

“We reveal the true costs behind all of our products—from materials to labour to transportation—then offer them to you, minus the traditional retail markup.”

Fast fashion can mean consumers find something new and affordable every time they shop. The cost for cheap clothing is often exploitation of primarily, women, children and the environment.

In an effort to support workers, Fairtrade has created The Fairtrade Textile Standard, a component of the Fairtrade Textile Program, designed to engage manufacturers and workers in the supply chain and to bring about better wages and working conditions.

“Can we learn, collectively, to look at value as more than just what’s on the price tag, digging deeper to consider the environmental and human cost as well,” said Kimberly Leung, a Toronto-based freelance writer who specializes in sustainable and ethical living.

Budget, however, is a major obstacle towards change, with many of the eco-conscious, ethical brands sporting high price tags.

“Can we learn to treat unethical and unsustainably made clothing the same way we treat clothing we deem to be too expensive — by leaving it on the rack?” said Leung.

A few ethical North American clothing companies include Preloved, Encircled, Everlane, Levi, Nisolo, Ahimsa, PACT apparel and Tribe Alive.

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