Written by our wonderful guest blogger Clementine Barnes. 

Fashion is doing it tough right now. With many fashion businesses being forced to close retail shopfronts in the interest of public health and safety during COVID-19, sales are down, and with unemployment in Australia predicted to reach levels not seen since the great depression, consumer behaviour is having one very serious crisis of confidence.

Media reports have been filtering in over the previous months of large multinationals (MNCs) cancelling Ready-Made Garment (RMG) orders due to the economic fallout of Covid-19. This, coupled with restricted supply of raw materials from China during lockdown, has resulted in the closure of garment factories in countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam; where in the ‘race to the bottom’ the majority of workers do not receive a living wage. Clean Clothes Campaign reported in Tailored Wages 2019: The state of pay in the global garment industry, that 0% of the MNCs it approached could ‘show no evidence of a Living Wage being paid to any workers’. These two factors, when combined during the current global climate, have serious negative consequences for garment workers situated at the bottom of the supply chain, eighty percent of which are women, many of whom are also migrants.

Sewing technician at work in a Dhaka factory during COVID-19.
A woman at work in a Dhaka factory during Covid-19.
Image: Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury / Shutterstock.com

The SDGs

In a previous blog post, A social movement unknown to many: Sustainable Fashion, Maite Cezario delved into sustainability in the fashion industry. When most of us envisage sustainability, we think of the environment. Yet as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) teach us, sustainability encompasses a great deal many more things: from Health and Wellbeing (SDG 3) to Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8) to Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), to Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16). So, when a fashion business states they are sustainable, we owe it to ourselves (and to the many hands our garments pass through before they find their way onto our backs), to ask ‘is this piece of clothing really sustainable?’. What does sustainability look like to you?

the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Image: the United Nations

One of the potential positive outcomes of Covid-19 is widely predicted to be a return to local manufacturing, which can only be a good thing right? As a local social enterprise, with production taking place on-site, The Social Outfit is actively invested in sustainability through the re-use of raw materials, skills development initiatives, the provision of local jobs and the myriad ways it offers support to the migrant and refugee community.

Keeping it Local

Textile, Clothing and Footwear (TCF) manufacturing in Australia has taken a hit over the past twenty years with local manufacturers struggling to match offshore pricing, resulting in a decline in the number of TCF workers from approximately 90,000 in the year 2000 to around 30,000 in 2019 (AISC). If, in the twilight of a post Covid-19 world, there is a return to local manufacturing, we will be required to adapt our fashion consumption to a revised economic model. And yes, this means we will pay more for things. After years of paying less (a woman’s cotton tee-shirt goes for less than ten dollars these days), we will be required to pay the ‘true cost’, one which reflects a respect for people and the planet. For those of you interested, a documentary film by the same name released in 2015 sheds some serious light on the global fashion industry. You can view the trailer here.

We need to be willing to embrace our new ‘normal’ because it will undeniably yield positive outcomes, both for garment workers in emerging economies and for those here at home. We must (perhaps reluctantly), accept that the current economic model of consumption and production is not only unrealistic, but immensely unsustainable. The following quote by Dilys Williams, founder and director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF), gives us something to think about:

quote by Dilys Williams, founder and director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF)

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports that garments are worn 36% less before being discarded than they were fifteen years ago, and as such, production volumes have more than doubled during the same period. Fashion used to be an investment. My mother recently gave me some clothing which belonged to my grandmother. These items of clothing are made of natural fibres, are beautifully constructed, and as it turns out, remarkably timeless. So, if, as predicted, there is a substantial return to local manufacturing, then why can’t we also welcome a return to a more modest model of conscious consumption’. There is no better time than the present to wear our hearts on our sleeves. 

In keeping with the spirit of this post, have a look at The Social Outfit’s made to order, zero-waste autumn/winter 2020 collection!

Clementine Barnes is a visual artist based in Sydney, Australia. In 2019 she completed a Master of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney which included a research project investigating workers’ rights in the RMG sector in Bangladesh. Her current interest is the intersection between labour rights and the circular economy.



May 19, 2020 — TSO Staff


Eyal Mayroz said:

Well said Clementine!!

Your focus on the interrelated character of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and on the need to examine at the same time living wages in garment industries overseas, cultural/social/economic practices in Australia, and environmental practices and outcomes globally, is well warranted!!

Keep up the good writing!!


Pauline Tiffen said:

I really appreciate this writing and the message. I wonder if you would be willing to write for us at The Journal if Fair Trade?! Please let me know if if interest and we can discuss….

Leave a comment

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.