Do You Know Who Makes Your Clothes?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Garments in Ingrid Starnes' Newmarket boutique. Image by Elizabeth Clarkson Photography.

Have you thought about who made the clothes that hang in your wardrobe?  It's an important question and one that a lot of us don't give enough consideration to at all.  Like everyone else I never used to think that much about the sources of my clothing choices before I got into fashion. However, in the past few years I've been trying to make more conscious shopping decisions and asking questions of retailers and designers, so I know what I'm buying and where it's made as there are so many reasons to support locally made garments, wherever in the world you may be reading this.  I've always been a big supporter of the New Zealand fashion industry since I was old enough to realise where and how clothes are made, and the fact is everyone from every walk of life wears clothes so we all make decisions that impact the garment industry all the time.

New Zealand, like Australia and even the USA, has seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of local onshore production over the past few decades, due to many reasons.  But put quite simply it's cheaper to manufacture garments offshore and import them into New Zealand, and with the increase in quality produced by overseas factories particularly those in China, Indonesia and many other Asian countries it's pretty much impossible for local production to compete.  That has seen the closure of a lot of local manufacturers in countries like NZ as the local wages demanded are obviously higher than those in third world countries, although bear in mind that the wages here are standard for a country like New Zealand and its economy.

The downside of all this offshore production is that garments produced in New Zealand cost more, that's a fact.  Whenever I've interviewed local labels who manufacture here, such as Twenty-seven Names, Celine Rita and Taylor, they emphasise that being able to manufacture their garments locally is extremely important to them despite the higher production cost and I absolutely support them in that.  Knowing that you're helping create and sustain jobs in your home country is a great thing, and that locally made dress you're buying is going to support local families and help the economy. With the current size of New Zealand's production capabilities this also means that these businesses need to stay of a small size to be able to sustain their production.  The upside of this is that the runs of each piece are limited and you're far less likely to see someone else wearing your new locally made skirt, because only 10 or 20 were made, rather than if you bought it from a label that had 300 of them made overseas.  

Of course for many labels who want to greatly expand and take on many stockists they reach a point where overseas production becomes inevitable and that's not something we should knock either. It's more that those companies need to make sure that the factories they choose to work with are ethical and they still do as much as they can here to support the local industry as well. The Rana Plaza disaster last April highlighted the fact that as much as some things may have come a long way in fashion, there are still many well-known international labels who use factories that don't meet basic standards of safety and the workers are underpaid and overworked.  Even with the new codes of conduct introduced since then and the fact that some companies have made moves to improve workers conditions, there are still many people exploited daily in these factories.  I'm not here to guilt you about buying that $10 t shirt from a bargain retailer as we've all done it, but did you ever think about who made it and how they live?  

We're at a time now where there is so much information available to us that it's quite mind-boggling really, although the good part about that is there is also more transparency than ever before and we as consumers have the right to ask questions about what we're buying and where it was made. If you're not sure where something was made read the label on the inside of the garment, if you're still not sure, then ask.  The more of us that question what we're buying and consciously decide to buy locally and ethically made products, the more of a positive impact we have on the world and people around us. It's that old idea of voting with your wallet really.  Now I know that the thought of buying something that costs more is off-putting to a lot of people even if it is supporting local producers, but please bear in mind that if you're spending the extra cash and buying something well-made from good fabric, it will last.  Most local labels like Ingrid Starnes and Amber Whitecliffe also repair their garments if anything gets broken or comes apart so don't be afraid to take something back and ask if that's the case.  We've become so used to being bombarded with fast fashion and buying things cheaply then wearing and disposing of them, that we don't seem to realise that the idea of looking after and repairing garments like our grandparents did has been mostly lost these days.

The idea of choosing locally produced fashion over cheap overseas fashion is also an important concept for personal style bloggers to take on board.  Sure, it's easy to pick up a cute skirt on the internet from ASOS, BooHoo or Topshop for a small amount and link to it from your blog, but do those huge businesses really need to sell another 5, 10 or even 50 skirts? No. It's a drop in the bucket to them, whereas selling those extra few skirts can make a big difference to a small New Zealand label.  Independent bloggers have complete freedom to choose who they feature on their blogs and I think it's about time there was a conscious effort to support local labels more. Especially as the garment industry like many others has had a rough few years with the closure of several labels, some who had been in business for decades.  If you want local labels to survive and flourish, don't just like their posts on Facebook, choose to buy their clothes, even if it means saving up, as they're worth every cent.  If there is one thing I want to leave you with it's this; think before you buy and make smart choices, as the future of fashion is in all our hands and we have the power to make changes to it.

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