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Exploitation isn’t reserved for ‘far-off’ places.

Much of the literature and imagery you will see from the sustainable and ethical fashion movements may lead you to believe that those exploited by fast fashion supply chain all live in exotic locations (don’t let the forest above fool you, it’s actually my ‘outdoor office’ and it’s in suburbia not a tropical island). While this is for most part a reality of the bargain prices we can buy fashion items for, many don’t realise that those working in ALL aspects of fashion can be exploited. This post will explain a little about how exploitation happens across the ‘developed world’ (for want of a better description) supply chain and is mostly written from my own research and years in the biz. If you contest or want to add to anything relating to the following observations please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Darling… Do you know how many people would kill to work here?

Have you seen The Devil Wears Prada (or read the book that inspired the movie)? If not then go do it. The fashion industry is rife with Miranda Priestly’s. When you work head office of a label you will likely work many hours for free bearing huge burdens of tight budgets and timeframes, and you are not likely to be remunerated for the hours you work and the stress you endure. In some cases you may not be paid at all. There is a prestige in the industry (like many industires) that you need to pay your dues and work your way up- a fashionable survival of the fittest. Many begin as unpaid interns working additional jobs to support their experience in the fashion industry, if they are lucky they get offered continuing work. Generally speaking (from my experience in the industry) the more lusted after the label, the less you will be paid to work head office. Why? Because people want your job and can and do work for free. This is lorded over the heads of employees working unpaid nights and weekends to meet deadlines. Let’s face it, most of us would prefer to work design and marking for Prada, Zara, or Free People than we would a company that makes school uniforms as there is little ‘glamour’ in the school uniform business.

Shop clerks living on the poverty line.

Fashion retail is considered to be a cushy sort of job . I can say from my own personal experience that this is only sometimes accurate. Depending on the store you work in there can be some serious stress and very little revenue in being one of those beautiful and on-trend people (who hopefully aren’t as judgemental as the ones shown above.. this clip is just for fun) that sell you all the pretty things! Firstly, depending on the wage agreements of some companies, the pay can be pretty average. Base wages in Australia are just enough to get by depending on your geographical location (cost of living can sometimes force retail employees to the poverty line). However many retailers enforce wage agreements that sign away penalty hours (I know because I work for them). In addition to this retailers often ask employees to come in outside of their working hours with no financial compensation. This will often be meetings, to pick up rosters or keys, reading store documentation, being at work fifteen minutes before shifts start, and staying late to do close up or house keeping duties. Staying an additional thirty minutes each night of the week to do cash up, and starting an additional fifteen minutes early sees the average shop clerk working 3.75 unpaid hors each week. It sounds ludicrous but I can actually say that I have had to do this (more recently than I would like to admit). Another crazy phenomena in this industry is understaffing and fear-mongering. Many stores cut staff the moment the season gets a little quite or sales drop. This will often see stores being staffed by one person for hours on end and on late nights. Aside from the security factor it also means that the person staffing the store is not free to take toilet breaks or rest. Some retailers also employ mystery shoppers and constant remind the employees that they could be mystery shopped at any time. This mystery shop threat also enforces continual adherence to store ‘laws’ such as ‘no sitting down’, ‘no taking breaks’, ‘no water bottles on the shop floor’, ‘no leaving the shop floor’ etc. This fear mongering will deter many employees from operating in a way that is conductive to OH&S (like drinking water, resting when weary, taking bathroom breaks, and sitting to unpack stock rather than leaning over it).

Paying for store advertising.

Your average on-trend sales assistant will be wearing the latest and greatest that the retailer has to offer (and hopefully with as much pizzaz as the hilarious parody above). If you have never worked in fashion retail before you would probably assume that they are given the clothing. This is rarely the case. Some stores will give staff a clothing allowance, however this is usually reserved for full time or part time employees if offered at all. For most part employees are paying to wear the clothes to work and clothing is usually sold at a staff discount. While it’s a legal blackhole here in Australia for employers to dictate how employees spend their money,  many retailers will use the ‘hey if you don’t come to work in new season full price stock then plenty of others will be happy to have your job’ to get you to comply with company dress code suggestions. Fair Work states that:

Employees required to buy work related items can’t be forced by their employer to use their wages to pay for these items, if the requirement is unreasonable.

I know that in the year I spent in fast fashion (the one that preceeded the ‘Wardrobe Workout’ challenge that started Sustainability in Style the blog) I personally spent just under $10,000 of my $22,000 annual salary on clothing to wear to work (seems pretty unreasonable doesn’t it?). I was also sent a tax bill that year because one of the retailers I worked for forgot to submit my tax file documentation.

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Sustainability should be sustainable

It would be safe to assume that when you buy from a conscious fashion label that things would be better wouldn’t it? Not-always-accruate! In some cases the companies you buy from have the right business model set up and are profitable enough to pay all the people in their supply chain for the work they do. However this isn’t the case for most businesses. Unfortunately the ‘low-low’ prices of fast fashion have changed consumers perceptions of how much a garment should cost. Many conscious minded consumers have opted out of shopping for a ‘minimalist’ lifestyle, others go cheap and cheery and chose to shop second-hand. This makes life really difficult for the conscious fashion retailer because they want to sell you things and without your patronage they don’t exist. Many small labels can’t afford to run their label without having to work elsewhere to support it. The sad truth is that for conscious fashion labels sustainability isn’t sustainable when consumers have been trained to shop cheap (something I have learned from working alongside a variety of small labels)! They work long hard hours out of love for little or no return. Without your support then it’s impossible for sustainable fashion to be self sustaining.

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Sustainability in Style will hopefully be sustainable soon!

The reason I write this post is to both raise awareness of the importance of considering more than what is presented in the eco-fashion media. Yes, exploitation in the garment industry is rife in developing countries but it’s just as prevalent (but usually not as extreme) in developed nations and the sustainable and ethical circles aren’t exempt from exploitation. At present this blogging venture is not sustainable for me. I am working two additional jobs (outside of freelance writing, blogging, and study commitments) six days a week, one is retail (not fast fashion fortunately but it’s still not the epitome of ethics or sustainability) and the other is science based. I’m trying to get back into study but they shut down my sustainability education department (this is the second time my sustainability studies have been halted by department /program closures). The blogging could be sustainable but I have declined the emails I get for advertising and product promotion because I had my research studies planned around this space and advertising creates a bias for study results. The next few months I plan- with your help- to prove to the world that sustainability research can be sustainable. I will be launching a members only section that you can join to expand your style horizons with sustainability education based style literature and courses, and help me show that Sustainability Education is important and can be self funded and free from monetary bias! The book The Closet Scientist will be launched as soon as I find a way to rejig my studies post department closures, as it’s the key component to my sustainability education research project and also an exciting opportunity for you to get involved in some real-life research studies.

In the mean time my humble apologise for the delayed email replies, slow post feed, and sloppy social media. I promise it’s all for a good cause. My advice for those wishing to follow their dreams and passions? Just keep going but you will likely exploit yourself with long hours in the process (if you love what you do it’s worth it).