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Consumers Are Confused About What Ethical Fashion Really Means

Ethical fashion is, in a word, confusing.

If the barrage of certifications and accreditations wasn’t enough, consumers also have to contend with a litany of unregulated terms such as “sustainable” and “ethical” that are as unfettered in use as they are open to interpretation.

Even modern slavery laws, such as those enacted in Australia and the United Kingdom, can muddy the conversation, new research shows.

In a survey of a hundred Australian consumers conducted over the summer, researchers from the University of Melbourne found that while most respondents said they felt “well informed” about the broader issues of ethics in fashion, they also struggled with knowing how genuinely sustainable or ethical a product was at the point of sale.

“Many of our research participants felt overwhelmed when trying to locate and interpret information about where, how and by whom their garments are made,” wrote Natalya Lusty, professor of cultural studies at the University of Melbourne, in a blog post. “Those wanting to be ‘conscious consumers’ find that they need to get acquainted with accreditation and certification systems, stay up to date with ethical shopping guides, and know what it means for garment workers to receive a living wage or be a union member.”

Many participants were also “deeply skeptical” of greenwashing and marketing spin, though they tend to trust smaller labels and brands with established sustainability bonafides, such as Patagonia. Lusty, in fact, connects the uptick in popularity of secondhand and vintage fashion to consumers’ desire to mitigate confusion by opting out of buying new items altogether.

Very few participants were aware of the Australian Modern Slavery Act, with most erroneously believing that “modern slavery” refers only to off-shore production and doesn’t include forced labor that occurs domestically.

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“Recognizing consumers’ challenges and good intentions is crucial if we are to improve the ethics of the global fashion system,” Lusty said. “Rather than simply increasing the number of certifications or accreditations brands should adhere to, our research suggests we would do better to increase consumer knowledge of those that already exist—and what they mean in practice.”

The study coincides with newly published research from Oxfam Australia that blames the business practices of large fashion brands for keeping female garment workers mired in poverty and “entrenched inequality.”

Conducted in partnership with Monash University, the research examined the purchasing practices of 10 leading fashion retailers that operate in Australia and source their clothes from Bangladesh: Best&Less, Big W, Cotton On, H&M, Zara owner Inditex, The Just Group, Kmart, Myer, Mosaic Brands (Noni B) and Target Australia.

Oxfam Australia described some of the findings as “alarming.” While the brands claimed they never or rarely terminated a relationship or switched factories because of price, for instance, 100 percent of the factories the charity surveyed reported that this was always the case if buyers were unable to negotiate a lower cost.

Eight out of 10 factories surveyed also reported that brands often applied high-pressure negotiating strategies to reduce price, and seven out of 10 reported setting steep production targets and excessive overtime for workers in order to deliver orders that exceeded forecasts on time. Four out of 10 said they have accepted orders at margins below what it costs them to produce the clothes safely and ethically. Another six out of 10 reported accepting other orders at low prices when order volumes fell short of the brand’s forecast.

“The research reveals unfair purchasing practices are pressuring factories into adopting poor working conditions and paying unacceptably low wages,” Lyn Morgain, chief executive at Oxfam Australia, said in a statement. “It found that these poor purchasing practices of brands are making it impossible for factories to increase wages, despite many of the same brands making public commitments to ensure the payment of living wages. Instead, wages are trapping workers mainly women–and their families in a cycle of poverty.”

While the surveys were administered in the months before the pandemic hit, Morgain said their revelations were “shockingly laid bare” in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, during which major Australian brands canceled orders, delayed payments or sought discounts for clothes already completed.

“Almost overnight, hundreds of thousands of garment workers were stood down without pay during the pandemic, leaving them facing the risk of extreme poverty,” she added.

Over the past three years, Oxfam Australia has heard from a dozen major retailers that say they want to ensure that female garment workers earn a living wage—which is to say, enough to cover essentials such as food, housing, healthcare, clothing, transport and education, while leaving some money for emergencies.

“But this report shows that unless brands agree to improve the poor purchasing practices that are driving down wages, their commitments to ensure the payment of living wages risk becoming mere lip-service,” Morgain said.