Clothes that care
[WHO] Kelly Elkin, award-winning fashion designer [WHAT] Ethical fashion means you can look good and do good [HOW] Considerate production and considerate consumption combat exploitation
[WHO] Kelly Elkin, award-winning fashion designer [WHAT] Ethical fashion means you can look good and do good [HOW] Considerate production and considerate consumption combat exploitationKelly Elkin decries sweatshops in favour of ethical fashion, writes Michael Short. A CURIOUS thing about fashion is it often appears more fuelled by trend than style and elegance. The defining thing about trend is transience hordes are buying clothes they will wear but a few times. This is perhaps fortunate, because a lot of those clothes are prone to fall apart after more than a few outings.This rapid redundancy is absolutely fabulous if you happen to be a purveyor of cheap clothing. But it is creating much waste, and worse. Those with the happy belief they are snaring a hip bargain may well be falling for a false economy cheap clothes can end up costing you more because they have to be replaced far more frequently. And they might not only be undermining their own interests, they could well be inadvertently hurting workers along the production line.In Australia, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, many of them recent arrivals with poor English and little knowledge of workplace law, are assembling those garments and are being exploited. Many might think that sweatshops are exclusively the Dickensian stuff of so-called developing economies. They are not, and Kelly Elkin is here in The Zone to explain options we have that might lead to looking better, spending wiser and ultimately combating some of the illegal and unfair things happening along the supply chain.People are working for as little as $3 an hour. They get no superannuation, no holiday pay, no insurance. They are paid by the piece and work long hours under constant deadlines. They work in their own homes or garages or in small suburban spaces set up by the subcontractor. They are called outworkers.It is hard to really know how many of them there are, given the clandestine nature of the work, but it is estimated that between half and 70 per cent of garments carrying a made-in-Australia tag were made by an outworker."It's really an unhealthy working environment often, and very isolating and very hard for them to get support. A lot of them have very limited English and they don't know their rights and so you've got people bullying them into things and playing off each other."It's quite unfortunate, and most people don't realise that within a few kilometres' radius of our own homes there are people in those situations. It's really unfair. We take so much pride in supporting Made in Australia, but we really need to be more cautious of where those things are getting made in Australia and who is making them."The growing global movement of which Kelly Elkin is an award-winning member is known as ethical fashion. "Ethical fashion basically is a term used to cover socially and ecologically responsible fashion. From a social perspective, that's talking about considering the people who are making the clothes, where it's being grown, that kind of thing."From an environmental perspective, it's about where you're getting the cotton from or it's the materials that you need, the carbon miles that it's taking basically right down from the start to the end of the product you're considering everyone that is involved, and the ecological factors involved in the process."It extends well beyond ameliorating the exploitation of outworkers. It might be thought of as considerate production and considerate consumption. And it's about business: an ethical fashion operation will not be sustainable unless underpinned by compelling design. For it to work, ethics and aesthetics must be twinned. "People are buying clothes because they want to look good. They are not buying things because they want to be necessarily ethical or to support something. You need to consider the environment, but you also need to consider whether a dress is going to look good on somebody."The options for those who want to look good and do good are expanding. "The founder of Ethical Fashion Forum recently quoted that it's the fastest-growing trend in fashion in the past 50 years.""So you've got an amazing movement, which is really exciting because you've got small labels from all these different places around the world, but then you've got also these much bigger companies people like Vivienne Westwood and the big department stores doing it as well. So it's not just for a niche area and it's not just a niche look any more. No matter what your style is, you can find a real alternative."Ethical Fashion Forum is a London-based industry body focused on social and environmental sustainability in the fashion industry. Kelly Elkin recently flew over to receive an award from the organisation for the way she operates her sleepwear label A.L.A.S. with fellow founder Betony Dircks, an acronym for All Light All Shadow."We're both organic-certified and fair trade accredited. We get our stuff manufactured over in India, because that's where you can get the best organic cotton at the moment. It's very high quality. We thought if we are going to get the fabric there, we may as well get it all dyed and woven and spun and made over there in northern India."The people that work in the factories there get paid medical insurance, they get transport to work and back paid for, they also get a whole bunch of other benefits including the education of their children paid for."Here in Australia, a joint industry-union body, Ethical Clothing Australia, accredits producers. The link below takes you to a full list. Kelly Elkin mentions local labels Bhalo and Kuwaii and Social Studio, a Melbourne-based brand using fashion to empower refugees. Her blog Transparent Seams (see link below) explores innovation in ethical fashion.Beyond checking accreditation, here's her advice to consumers: "You should really consider why you're going shopping. A lot of the time we buy things we don't really need. You just need to be conscious of what you're doing and how you're spending, because that's one of the most important things you can do."Also you can do simple things like avoiding huge fast-fashion outlets that don't really want to consider making quality products. The prices are very low, so you have to question value for money, because often you can buy something very, very cheap but it is not necessarily going to last you and has not necessarily helped anyone in the first place."Whereas there are plenty of options nowadays where you can buy something that is a beautiful product and very well designed by a reputable designer that has considered the people who are making it and the materials that they are making it with. So that's a first, very easy, option."Another option is what's known as upcycling, which means adapting existing clothes. "Upcycling is basically using old clothing and turning it into new . . . We have these designers who are using, for example, necklines as waistlines, and putting in different drapes with the sleeves."You can get really creative, and the good thing about upcycling is people can do it at home and you don't have to have very good sewing skills because you can use all the pre-existing fastenings. Basically it is the cheater's way to sew your own clothing, and you're recycling, so it's about being creatively sustainable."Elkin is launching her label in Europe in coming months. But she'll continue her local activities, too. Australia may lack market size, but that is offset by an inversion of what was once considered another shackle, the tyranny of distance."We can be ahead because we have that isolation and that means that we need to think creatively and problem-solve for ourselves. We have some great independent designers . . . From an ethical perspective, it's really exciting here . . ."It has reached the point where it is easy to look good, feel good, do good and save money by basing your wardrobe on a few high-quality, ecologically friendly garments. Ethical fashion is really just chic common sense.