In most cases, it’s easy to find out where your clothes were made – just read the label. Although the Australian Consumer Law does not require businesses to make country of origin claims on garments, thanks to customs and import/export requirements they almost universally do. The questions is, do consumers care?
Ninety-two per cent of the clothing sold in Australia is imported. We’re used to it. This is our normal. “The industry has transitioned over the last few decades from a time when we not only produced great fibre but spun it, milled it and made garments from,” says Kirri-mae Sampson from the Council of Textile & Fashion. “There were many factories that had more than 1000 factory workers, now it’s rare to find a clothing factory with more than 20 workers.”
China is still the biggest clothing manufacturing nation, although it’s no longer the cheapest. My Country Road shirts, Jigsaw dress and Sportscraft jumpers make no bones about their Chinese origins. Others prefer to sugar coat the message, presumably because mentioning Australia ups the feel-good factor.
So the label on my favourite Zimmermann dress stresses that while it too was made in China, it was designed right here. Bonds does this too, as if the fact that an Australian designer decided what colour to make my knickers elastic makes up for the fact that Bonds closed its last factory in New South Wales in 2010.
I suspect while we like the idea of Made in Australia, we’d prefer not to pay for it.
So K-mart is spruiking “Australian grown” cotton tees.
They are “premium” they say, and “crafted” from Aussie cotton. On first glance I thought that meant they were made here, but of course it’s only the fibre. You don’t grow a T-shirt – you cut and sew it. And at 10 bucks a pop, you can’t do that here.
I asked ethical sourcing consultant Melinda Tually if, given how cheap they are, we can make assumptions about how responsibly the K-Mart tees were made. “Sorry, there’s no quick answer,” she says. “There’s no guarantee that a low price point means they were made in unsafe conditions. They could be coming from the cleanest and safest factories in the world, but even with a $100 price point, we can’t guarantee that without having more information.” She points out that K-mart was the first Australian retailer to start publishing a list of their Tier One factories. It’s complicated. “They are being transparent and taking part in one of the best practice living wage projects the industry currently has, the ACT initiative, and that’s a big start.”
What’s the conscious shopper to do?
Certainly you could wade into the detailed reports that are available online examining the complex global supply chains of big brands, and decide which one best fits your own personal ethics. Supporting Made in Australia seems like a quicker fix, and it’s not impossible.
Despite the race offshore, some established designer names remain committed to local manufacturing. Carla Zampatti has been making in Australia for more than 50 years. Zampatti’s little black book helped her daughter Bianca Spender develop relationships with local makers when she started out in 2007.
Spender says: “Fashion is a human process. Strip out all the jargon and it’s basically a bunch of women sewing in a room. Most of those women have children, and many don’t speak English incredibly well. In a way, their business is your business – if they’re not delivering production on time, for example, then you’re not. It’s about personal relationships: you get to know them, they help your process and you help theirs. It becomes collaborative – that’s why I value making locally so much.”
Spender operates at the designer end of the market, using beautiful, sometimes delicate fabrics to make sophisticated garments that are often based on complex patterns. She says she can’t imagine trying to do that remotely with makers on the other side of the world.
“We’ve been increasing our production as our range has been growing, and at that point you have to find new makers here. It’s getting increasingly difficult. These are often family businesses and one of the problems is that when the parents retire the next generation doesn’t want to take over. But I am so committed to it. I will not give up! It’s something we have to fight for as an industry, to keep these skills here.”
Sampson thinks we can. “It has been a hard time for the industry, with such large loss of jobs, and corresponding experience and skills. However, we have emerged from this with a new kind of manufacturing base that’s aligned to the new economy. The manufacturing segment of the industry employs around 40,000 people today – so despite ‘the industry is dead in Australia’ perception that we hear so frequently, it is actually very much alive; it’s just [different]. New manufacturing companies are now small, flexible and make higher value product, more artisan than mass production. And they are growing.”
Melbourne start-up A.BCH is a case in point. Designer Courtney Holm has a dream: “To one day have all our manufacturing done in-house. We’ll employ all our makers directly, and present the making side of it as just as beautiful and seemingly glamorous [being a designer is actually not as glamorous as people think!] as design. I want it to be seen as a creative job that fashion students aspire to. That’s not going to happen while makers sit on assembly lines and sew just a pocket or just a hem over and over again. But think about all the people who love sewing! Imagine if you could find a way using lean tactics where each maker sews a garment from start to finish and has that satisfaction. The job needs to change. It needs to become something that’s viewed as a creative craft.”