Do people really care about ethical fashion?
18 April 2019 at 8:26 am
Nick Savaidis, the founder of ethical fashion brand Etiko talks to Wendy Williams about the disconnect between people’s values and how they shop, and why we all share responsibility for making fashion ethical.
In the past year, searches for “sustainable fashion” have skyrocketed.
According to global fashion search platform Lyst, which tracked over 100 million searches across 5 million products, there was a 66 per cent increase in searches for sustainable fashion or related keywords since 2018.
But studies also reveal that while as many as 60 per cent of millennials say they are interested in certified clothing, only 37 per cent have actually purchased any.
There seems to be a big gap between what consumers are saying – that they want sustainable products – and how they are behaving.
It begs the question, do people really care about ethical fashion?
Etiko founder Nick Savaidis says while more and more people do care, it’s not as many as you might think.
“There are a lot more people who talk about it than actually do it,” he says.
For Savaidis, ethical fashion is not just business, it’s personal.
His mother worked in the fashion industry in the 1960s.
“That’s what a lot of migrant women who couldn’t speak English were doing during the 60s,” he explains.
“In our lounge room next to our black and white television, my mum had a Singer sewing machine that my dad had put a little motor on and made into an electric sewing machine.
“She would spend her time, in between raising four kids, sewing garments for big and small fashion brands and being paid 15 to 30 cents for those things.”
Aged just 11, Savaidis became aware of exploitation in the industry and learnt that there were winners and losers in capitalism.
“There was a retail outlet called the House of Merivale – if you talk to anyone in their 50s they will know about it because it was the shop to go shopping in at that time – and we saw some of the clothing my mum had sewn, being sold for $30 to $50,” he recalls.
“And as an 11-year-old I couldn’t understand why there was such a big difference. My mum who actually did a lot of the work was paid so little and they were selling these for pretty high prices.”
His interest in ethical fashion grew as he got older.
As a university student, and a keen reader of New Internationalist Magazine, he would go into retailers asking for them to prove their goods were child labour free, and he resorted to wearing second hand clothing – “much to my parents disgust”.
He ended up graduating as a secondary school teacher and would talk to his students about the impact of globalisation as part of their classes, and discuss the “evils of multinationals” with his colleagues in the staffroom.
But while he was aware of the issues he “wasn’t doing anything about it”.
“We’d complain about what the corporates were doing but when it came to buying school uniforms or sports gear or even coffee for the staffroom, nobody would think about our choices,” he says.
Things changed in the 1990s after he was given an opportunity to work on remote Indigenous communities and set up a number of community-owned social enterprises which could create employment.
“I came to realise that business doesn’t always have to be a negative it could actually be a positive thing,” he says.
After returning to Melbourne and spending two years selling ethical sneakers from No Sweat, Savaidis decided to create his own ethical brand, and Etiko was born.
The brand, proud to be the first fashion brand in the southern hemisphere to be fairtrade certified, aims to “do as much good as possible”, not just to simply be a responsible purchaser.
The Ethical Fashion Guide from Baptist World Aid Australia, which was released earlier this month, gives them an A+ rating.
“This is the sixth year that we’ve got an A+ and so we’re the only fashion brand in Australia to get A+ every single year that the report has come out,” Savaidis says.
“So we’ve actually proven that you can make clothing and footwear ethically and sell it at a price which is affordable.”
Since launching in 2006, the brand has grown significantly and now sells around the world.
But Savaidis suggests they were “eight years too early” in starting Etiko, with the growing demand for ethical products only taking hold in the past few years.
He points to the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, when a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,000 workers and injuring over 2,500 more, as the moment that “got people thinking”.
But he says people shouldn’t have had to die for others to “wake up and think about the impact of their choices”.
“The Rana Plaza tragedy was not the first industrial accident in the fashion industry where workers have been killed and it wasn’t the last one. It happens regularly. The workers demand for living wages still continues,” he says.
“It’s just amazing how reluctant any major brand is to commit to paying a living wage.”
He is dismissive of brands who commit to paying a living wage in the future.
“Why do you have to wait five years? Why can’t you do it now? They get kudos from Oxfam because they’ve made some kind of commitment that in five years time they’re going to do something and I’m prepared to take a bet that in five years time those brands would have done very little if anything,” he says.
But Savaidis agrees that the more pressure put on big brands to start doing the right thing, the better.
“I tell people that money doesn’t just talk, it screams,” he says.
“If businesses know they’re going to miss out on the consumer dollar because they’re not doing the right thing they’ll make the effort to change.”
Savaidis was involved in campaigning for the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act, with Etiko becoming one of the first companies to sign on and get behind it.
While he remains sceptical about getting a “real commitment” from business in light of the lack of penalty, he is hopeful the act could help put pressure on businesses to be more ethical.
“We’re getting invited to meetings now to talk to organisations about procurement as a result of the introduction of that legislation so it’s a step in the right direction,” he says.
But Savaidis has a word of caution about a “growing amount of ethical washing”, due in part to the confusion with various accreditations.
“I think people have got to scratch below the surface to find out a bit more,” he says.
He is keen to emphasise the “huge difference” between the brands who got an A+ in the recent Ethical Fashion Guide and the other rankings.
“The gap between the genuine ethical brands and all the others is not really reflected in that report,” he says.
“If you’re not paying a living wage, I think you’re drawing a long bow claiming to be ethical.”
Savaidis admits that being ethical can come at a cost.
“For our footwear for example, which looks remarkably similar to a well known sneaker brand, that costs us about 200 per cent more to produce but we choose to sell them at 5 per cent more,” he says.
The team also faces ethical dilemmas about balancing business with overconsumption.
Savaidis says he wrestled with the decision about taking part in Black Friday.
“Black Friday is the antithesis of what I stand for, what the Etiko brand stands for, encouraging people to buy stuff that they don’t really need,” he says.
“But the bottom line is we can’t create any social impact unless we are actually selling products.”
Etiko first took part in the event two years ago and it proved to be their single biggest retail day ever.
“And last year we did it again and this time was 50 per cent more than last year. So it has a huge impact on our business,” Savaidis says.
“The core of our business is to create positive social impact and work on minimising our environmental impact. I think we try to stay true to that as much as possible. When you’re a small business it’s actually really hard to do that all the time.”
For Savaidis it is important that Etiko’s price point remains the same as equivalent quality products.
“I never wanted my brand to be considered a middle class luxury,” he says.
He also believe making ethical more accessible and affordable is how we can bridge the gap between what people say, and what people do.
“I look at the growth in the vegan community. There’s a lot more educational awareness about the injustices now, about the cruelty that’s done to animals, but there’s also a lot of research about the health benefits of living a vegan lifestyle,” he says.
“I think that’s certainly created a lot of demand. But what really made the difference is the availability of vegan alternatives to what people would eat on a day to day basis.
“One of the challenges people have when it comes to buying ethical fashion is it is actually really hard to buy genuine ethical fashion.”
Of the brands that received an A+ in this year’s Ethical Fashion Guide, none of them are available in a mainstream retail outlet.
“So how are people going to buy them?” Savaidis questions.
“The reality is, there are about 5 to 10 per cent of the Australian population that are prepared to put their money where their mouth is, about half the Australian population doesn’t really care, but that leaves 40 or 45 per cent who potentially could become ethical consumers if it was easier for them to make the change.”
He says change needs to happen at every level of the supply chain.
“I have met factory owners who told me they don’t want to exploit people but it’s either that or they close down,” he says.
“Factory owners have told me they get approached by fashion brands from around Australia or other parts of the world, telling them ‘look unless you’re prepared to do this job at this price, we’re going to go elsewhere’… and these people do it out of desperation. They take on a job and they know that they’re going to have to cut corners.
“I also think consumers have some responsibility… it doesn’t take much of an IQ to work out that when a t-shirt is selling for $5 or $10 something’s got to give.
“So we’re all responsible to make sure that workers and the environment are looked after.”
With this in mind, he is also keen to stress the importance of organisations applying their values to their procurement policies.
“Take the top 100 businesses in Australia, they all have corporate social responsibility policies, but they rarely apply to their procurement policies,” he says.
“Then you look at schools in Australia, every single school in Australia talks to students about the importance of social justice and sustainability, and then they go and buy sweatshop-made school uniforms, play with sports gear often made by child labor, and they can’t even get fairtrade coffee into their staffrooms. There’s a huge disconnection.
“What’s even more shocking is the number of NGOs who are promoting social justice or sustainability and they don’t even apply it to their procurement process.”
Savaidis encourages people to challenge the organisations they are working with.
“We’ve got to ask that of ourselves, but we’ve also got to ask it of the organisations that we work with or are involved in,” he says.
Returning to the question of whether people really care. He says the answer is yes, but not enough.
“It needs to be easier for people to make the change.”
If you are interested in ethical fashion, and you are in Melbourne, Pro Bono Australia is holding an event in partnership with Vollie on 9 May. The first in a new event series, it will bring together two of our favourite things – espresso martinis and a burning desire to make the world a better place. For the first event, an incredible panel will discuss the topic Ethical Fashion: Do people really care? See here for more information.