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The True Cost Of Clothing

Nya Leth modelling the designs of the The Social Outfit’s Digital Print Project, designed to engage young people from refugee and new migrant communities in different areas of Western Sydney. Photo by Levon Baird

Unless we are going to get really primitive and go back to not wearing clothes, clothing ourselves is something we all have in common. Yet doing that in a way that isn’t causing harm either to the people making our clothes or the planet is proving to be increasingly difficult. In this age of fast fashion where clothing is made to be cheap and disposable, it takes a concerted effort to find clothes that are truly ethical.

It is most sustainable not to buy new products at all, and instead buy from op shops, repair clothes when they need mending and simply reduce the amount of clothing we own. But if we are going to buy something new, which, inevitably we will need to from time to time, it is best to buy good quality clothing that will last and from a reputable company that has proven ethical standards.

You can look for clothing made from organic materials, but that is only one part of the manufacturing process—there are the dyes used, the environmental impact of the growing process, the energy consumed during manufacturing and the disposal, not to mention the welfare of those involved in the production process from paddock to wardrobe.

There are many things to look for in a company to see if they are truly ethical, but that can be an overwhelming task. It’s not always possible either. Supply chain transparency is great in theory and is growing in response to fast fashion, but how do you really know if your clothing is ethical? Ethical Clothing Australia is an accreditation body that lists brands with transparent and legally compliant supply chains. While there is fair trade certification, a lot of sustainable garment makers don’t necessarily pursue certification, but this is still a good starting point.


Easy access to cheap clothing is having an impact on our culture, our earth and our quality of life.

When garment makers are trying to produce clothes for the lowest cost, the first person to lose out is the person making the clothing. Poorly paid workers in large unregulated factories make most of the clothing available in shops today. These workers (including children) are often not only paid poorly and work long hours, some of them are threatened verbally and physically.

These workers are often not allowed to join a union and have no right to oppose or negotiate for a better deal. The documentary The True Cost spells it all out in graphic detail.


Manufacturers are generally unregulated in the fashion industry— regulation is voluntary and not widely embraced. Dyeing and factory outputs are big contributors in terms of environmental degradation. The genetically modified cotton industry in India, which is causing wide spread environmental degradation across the country, is another example of how fast fashion harms the environment.

If you extend the environment to animals, then we’re looking at the way animals are treated while they’re alive if their bodies make a part of our clothing (leather, fur and skins, for example), or how they’re maintained while they’re producing the contents of our clothes (wool). It’s not uncommon for animals to be treated cruelly during these processes, and they don’t have the same legal protections that animals raised for food have.

It’s very sobering to take a conscious and thorough look at what you are wearing right now and think about how it got to you.


You may be wondering, is a brand more sustainable because they have organic garments? Not always. Organic clothes are a great option, but the overall sustainability of a garment involves more than just the farming practice of the fabric.

Overall, sustainability is based on the treatment and conditions of workers and animals, the way a business manages its waste and the impact on the physical environment.

Photo by Veja

Clockwise from top left: Tilpia shoes by Veja made from fish leather; Women’s & Girls’ Emergency Centre Patchwork Project; The Pip pinny from ZoeO; Ethically made organic cotton top from Vege Threads.

Photo by Vege Threads
Photo by GeorgiaBlackie
Photo by ZoeO


Bodies such as Good On You and Ethical Clothing Australia can help us make informed decisions about which companies we want to support. They show us which companies are ethical, what they are doing well and where they need to improve. Good On You is an app that rates garment makers based on these three measures:

• People

They look at the brand’s impact on workers across the supply chain. These include policies and practices on child labour, forced labour, worker safety, freedom of association (the right to join a union) and payment of a living wage. They also consider a brand’s supplier relationships and auditing practices.

• Planet

They consider each brand’s resource use and disposal, energy use and carbon emissions, impacts on water, as well as chemical use and disposal.

• Animals

They identify the use of fur, angora, down feather, shearling, karakul and exotic animal skin and hair. They also consider how wool is grown and whether and how the brand uses leather.


ZoeO is a fashion design studio based in Pambula in coastal NSW. They create sustainable, ethical and functional pieces that are made in Australia using natural and earth friendly fibres such as linen, organic cotton, merino wool and denim. They incorporate design techniques that eliminate textile waste. They ensure that the hands that manufacture their clothes have great working conditions and are paid well.

Vege Threads is based in Northcote, Melbourne and makes clothing for men and women. Their swimwear comes from recycled bottles and their eco credentials extend to donating 1% of their profits to environmental projects and NFPs. They’re also producing the garments in Australia in a sweatshop- free manufacturing process. Vege Threads use Australian certified organic dyes and plant-based dyes as well as Woolmark certified wool and organic cotton and hemp.

Lonely Kids Club in Sydney make t-shirts, pyjamas, shirts and jumpers with limited edition art prints. They are sweatshop- free and not mass produced, so their unique print runs of fabric are usually one-offs. Mental health awareness is one of their passion projects, as is keeping quality garment manufacture alive in Australia.

Veja is a French footwear company who produce shoes made of upcycled plastic bottles and fish leather (an agricultural waste product). Their website shows you exactly where they source their materials, how much people get paid and where they live. They don’t advertise either, so even though their shoes cost five times more to produce, they sell for the same price as a similar shoe because there’s no ad budget.

The Social Outfit in Newtown, Sydney are an accredited social enterprise creating super fun prints and good quality items that you can keep until you’re a granny. They support refugee communities to become financially empowered through training refugees and new migrants in the design, marketing, retail and production of sustainable garments.

Thunderpants are an ethical family-owned and operated company from New Zealand. They make underpants and other products (such as bags and aprons) from certified fair trade organic cotton. Every aspect of production (from how the fabric is made and the clothes sewn) is traceable, tested and controlled for quality. Their designs are cheeky and bright.

Photo by LesterJones


A great example of a company that remains ethical while mass producing clothing is Patagonia. Their aim is to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Patagonia are actively trying to reduce their environmental impact, supporting grassroots activists by paying an earth tax, advocating for systemic change, making repairable products and having repair hubs (there’s one in Patagonia’s Sydney store) and supporting regenerative agriculture practices.


Yes, ethical clothing will cost more, but that is the true cost of clothing. T-shirts that cost $4 cannot be made without harm being done somewhere along the line.

If you are buying new, search out clothes that have been made to last, produced ethically and if possible produced locally. And value what you already have—take pride in and care for your clothing by repairing or repurposing it. Wear your permaculture ethics (earth care, people care and fair share) on your sleeve.

We would also like to mention our supporters; Izwoz, Tsonga and Humphrey Law Socks all of whom make ethical and environmentally friendly products while fairly supporting the people that make them.



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