IMAGE: ETHICAL CLOTHING AUSTRAILA
Sigrid McCarthy manages Media and Communications at Ethical Clothing Australia, the accreditation body that ensures Australian supply chains are fully transparent and legally compliant.
"Be curious and ask questions. Ask brands where their clothing is made and what credible steps they are taking to ensure workers are treated fairly. Consumers have incredible buying power and should view each purchase as an act of voting!"
Hi Sigrid, you’re responsible for Media and Communications at ECA. Can you tell us a bit about the path that led you here, and where your interest in this area came from?
I have always had an interest in the construction of garments, but this was initially only related to the quality – when I was younger I was drawn to op shops over chain stores as I found they yielded better quality and more unique items. I didn’t realise it at the time, but by shopping secondhand I was rejecting the industry’s transition into offering cheap fashion and built-in obsolescence.
My interest in the garment industry’s social and environmental impact developed during university when undertaking a Bachelor of International Studies. As part of this degree I completed a research project on the exploitation of Australian garment workers and gained great insight through interviewing Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA®). Prior to this I was like many people, in that I assumed ‘Australian made’ equated to ‘Made Ethically’, so it was eye opening to learn that this was not always the case. I hadn’t realised how much the local industry had evolved over the years and how the outsourcing model was linked to issues of transparency and traceability.
This research eventually led me into a vortex of information related to the international fashion system. I couldn’t believe that such a fanciful industry could mask such a complex, unregulated and in many cases harrowing global supply chain. I quickly learned that this archaic, broken model needed immediate reform and it is this need that continues to drive my work.
ECA is an accreditation for Australian made clothing and footwear, effectively giving shoppers assurance that the garment has been made under ethical conditions, with fair wages and workers’ rights protected. Can you tell us a little more about how this works for suppliers and brands, and why it’s important?
ECA is a joint industry-union initiative that sees both industry and the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) working together towards a more transparent and ethical Australian garment industry. We have a service level agreement with the TCFUA and designated compliance officers who conduct supply chain audits as part of the accreditation process. These audits ensure that all local garment workers are receiving the Award rate, their legal entitlements and working in safe conditions.
Given the outsourcing nature of the garment industry, supply chains can be difficult to map and monitor. This is particularly the case when homeworkers are involved, as their work is somewhat hidden in nature.
IMAGE: ETHICAL CLOTHING AUSTRALIA
By mapping the entire cut, make, trim and value adding process, the ECA accreditation program helps brands stay accountable and ensure legal compliance.
It also demonstrates a respect for the manufacturing process and a commitment to supporting local industry.
As shoppers, if we want to make sure our purchases are made under ethical conditions, what should we look out for, and how can we tell if a garment is ECA accredited?
Be curious and ask questions. Ask brands where their clothing is made and what credible steps they are taking to ensure workers are treated fairly. Consumers have incredible buying power and should view each purchase as an act of voting!
Once compliant, a brand can display the ECA trademark on their Australian made products, providing customers with a simple way to identify and support ethical and locally made products. So, keep your eyes peeled when next shopping! Our brands are increasingly recognising the benefits of educating customers – promoting their ECA accreditation allows an opportunity to share the stories of their makers, the processes involved and their admirable support of Australian industry. We encourage you to support those who are maintaining local jobs, preserving local skills and ensuring legal compliance.
Head to the ECA website to view our list of accredited brands and manufacturers. There are currently approximately 100 companies accredited who all offer a range of high quality, locally made products – from fashion to footwear, schoolwear, protective workwear, swimwear and more!
Can you tell us about the impact that ECA has had on the local Australian industry i.e. Has there been an upswing in brands seeking accreditation, a rise in demand for locally made product, an increase in consumer recognition, is it recognised as a business advantage by brands and suppliers, any other insights you can share?
We believe the work of ECA is improving standards throughout local industry and promoting the business benefits of supply chain management. By working collaboratively with Australian companies, we are ensuring that they are aware of their legal obligations and responsibilities when employing local makers. It is an ongoing process, but more companies are starting to recognise the value in third-party compliance and ethical business practices, and this is reflected in our growing number of accreditations. It is also reflected in the increasing number of brands choosing to use the accreditation in their marketing to add value to their business story.
We are finding that customers wanting to know where they can purchase ethically made products are often coming to ECA for guidance. Research is also indicating that accredited labelling has a positive influence on the customer at the point of sale, reminding them of the ethical concerns involved in clothing production as they are making a purchase decision. We are heartened by this growing interest in ethical clothing, as well as the emphasis being placed on the importance of independent certification schemes.
IMAGE: ETHICAL CLOTHING AUSTRALIA
Through your work with ECA you have come into contact with a broad cross section of the TCF industry. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that the industry faces in becoming a more ethical, more responsible industry?
Traceability is a significant issue, given very few brands keep all production in-house and therefore don’t have direct oversight of production standards. Often principal companies aren’t aware that their supply chain involves extra tiers or engages people working from home, and this can mean the rights and safety of workers are at risk. Promoting transparency as best practice and encouraging brands to embrace third-party compliance is key.
Another challenge is around accountability and the issue of brands divorcing themselves of responsibility for those who make their clothes.
We believe brands should be held accountable for the welfare of garment workers, regardless of whether those workers have been employed directly or indirectly. Shifting this mindset and attitude among businesses, when they’ve been operating this way for many years, is difficult but we see this gradually changing and many new companies are starting with these foundations.
Lastly, a challenge lies in the use of buzzwords that have little substance or clear definition. There is a potential for brands to co-opt the ‘ethical’ movement without defining their core values or demonstrating where these are reflected in their supply chains, or not having any independent, third party verification. This can get in the way of real progress, which is why it is so important for customers to demand credibility from brands.
IMAGE: CUE CLOTHING
Can you tell us about your own style and what you wear? Do you buy new clothes and if so, what do you look for; do you recycle, repair or rent them perhaps. What about the importance of personal style, where does that fit in?
I rarely buy new products, but when I do I consider garment origin and lifecycle, as well as cost per wear. If it’s not secondhand, I always research the brand prior to purchasing—I’m that person who endures awkward conversations with brands about production processes and garment worker safety. No matter how pleasant I am in my questioning, I’m still often made to feel as though these types of questions are suspicious or unreasonable. I hope that in future this kind of customer curiosity becomes standard, and that more brands will be forthcoming in their responses.
When buying new garments, I support ECA accredited brands as I respect their corporate social responsibility efforts and trust their ‘ethical’ claims – that is the beauty of third party assurance. I love that accredited brands offer high quality, long lasting pieces that are beautiful and also have a nice local story behind them.
There are many options available for people looking to have less of a negative impact when they buy clothing. I would encourage people to look into consignment stores, clothing libraries, online selling communities, op shops and of course ECA’s website. I’m resourceful and strongly believe that you can look stylish without spending significant amounts of money or sacrificing your values. It just requires a little time and consideration.
Thank you Sigrid for sharing your knowledge and insight into the Australian Clothing & Footwear industry. You can follow ECA on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and check out their website for a list of accredited brands and suppliers, and look out for their distinctive 'e' swing tags on garments next time you are in stores!