Goodness me Lovely Hearts it is Fashion Revolution week for 2019! I see this as an incredible week, and a chance for us all to learn more about the lives and stories of the people who make our clothes and more. Obviously Fashion Revolution week began in response to the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 and the loss of life of garment workers in this appalling incident. But even though this week references fashion I see it as an opportunity to look at the making of ALL consumables we purchase, often without any thought for how/where they are made and who makes them, things such as homewares, appliances, mobile phones, jewellery, computers.
Last year at Brown’s we did an event for Fashion Revolution Week, and it was such a fantastic afternoon with great conversation. This year I started the ball rolling on planning a similar event, but with the pregnancy, as well as motherhood and small business ownership it was all a bit much really. So instead I thought I'd use social media to share stories and start conversations for this important week. And, I will definitely be heading along to this event on the weekend though, it sounds fantastic, with great local speakers and makers sharing their work and their insights!
To start of Fashion Revolution week though I wanted to share a little about being a retailer of ethical goods. I find sometimes people don't understand what it really means, why items cost more and why I hold these values so dear. Also, the term ethical in this context means different things to different people, for me I take the view of ethical goods (fashion, homewares, jewellery etc) being goods that are made in fair work conditions, that the people who make those things are paid appropriately for their work, and that steps are being taken, or ways are being explored to reduce the impact those goods have on the planet (i.e. the use of organic cotton, or more sustainable waste management and recycling processes have been employment, or recycled silver is sourced etc).
This desire to share my story as an ethical retailer was driven by a fantastic blog post on Kate from Gather and Moss’ website that I read a couple of weeks ago. In it she broke down the cost of producing clothes in Australia (she actually wrote this last year, but redirected people to it recently). It is a fantastic read, so honest and completely transparent. It shows that the costs are significantly higher when you produce in Australia, and the struggle to turn a profit or pay yourself at the end of that process is real.
I wrote to Kate straight away and asked if I could do a blog post that jumps off in my direction as a retailer from the discussion she started as a designer and maker. And generous soul that she is, she said yes! So, I’d really recommend first that you read Kate’s post before you read on here, because a lot of what she has said feeds into my discussion.
So Kate clearly explains bit by bit the real cost of producing her pyjamas in Australia. It is particularly more expensive if you make things using ethical and/or sustainable materials (organic cotton, recycled silver, sustainable wood). But although less expensive than making in Australia, it is much more 'expensive' when compared to other options to make ethically anywhere.
For example if I make a fashion range in Bali, but it is done in ethical conditions, these are the elements that cost more:
1. paying a liveable wage (as opposed to a minimum wage)
2. providing appropriate staff breaks (for lunch, bathroom breaks etc)
3. providing staff leave entitlements (for weekends, religious holidays, days of rest)
4. staff working fair hours that allow family time, rest time, personal time (as opposed to requiring staff to work upwards of 15 hours per day)
5. supporting staff to develop and use complex skills (rather than repetitive piece work - i.e. sewing the same seam 5000 times, but rather teaching workers the skills to make a full garment, and develop transferrable skills).
6. ensuring the staff work in a safe environment with good air flow, ventilation, space to move (as opposed to cramped conditions with no natural light or fresh air etc.)
7. supporting staff to be able to access childcare and education for their children, allowing staff to bring small children to work with them, providing a family friendly workplace (as opposed to ignoring any personal needs of staff).
8. not employing children
These are just some basic, fair conditions of work that are provided within an ethical production system, these are not high end rights, but they are still unusual. When compared to workplaces that do not provide this to staff as you can imagine the cost of ethical production is much higher - if a company is not paying a liveable wage, if they do not provide breaks, if their staff are working long days, if they are working in cramped conditions, if they are employing children who earn less money - this is of course much cheaper. To my mind it is also absolutely abhorrent, but it is cheaper.
This is why there are $4 t-shirts, this is why there are kids dolls for $6….
There is also then of course those that produce in Australia in a similar way to what Kate discussed. And then there are local makers who either make all their pieces themselves, or have a very small team they work with - jewellers, potters, woodworkers.
So these are all the people I source stock from at Brown's, either people who are producing overseas in ethical conditions, or people who produce ethically in Australia, or small scale makers who make locally themselves or with a very small team.
So, I pay a fair price for all this wholesale stock for Brown's, a price that means that every person in the production process was paid fairly and worked in safe, ethical conditions. Also, often that the materials used are sustainable or more environmentally sound.
Now for lots of stores, large or small, the mark up they charge on a wholesale item will be at an absolute minimum 100%, but often MUCH higher than this, 300 to 500%. Meaning they buy a t-shirt for $10 wholesale and sell it for $45 retail, so you can imagine the cost breakdown in that value chain - the retailer is making 350% and the wholesaler must be making a decent profit, so what are the sewers making, what are the weavers making, what are the farmers making... and what conditions are all of these processes happening in (imagine that on a $5 RRP t-shirt too).
I want no part of that world, I want to be an alternative retailer, a space that offers ethical consumption and beautiful things that are carefully made. Nothing to me can be beautiful if it is made in horrific conditions. But this is why items at Brown's will cost more than a chain store, there is no great profit for me, and to be completely honest right now there is barely a wage - a situation that will need to change and improve if I am to keep going - but I take pride in being a business that has an ethical foundation, and I love supporting other small businesses and makers through my business that have the same values.
I think often retailers generally can be seen as greedy, and with the major downfall of retail over the last few years with the advent of online shopping, and big conglomerates like Amazon there has been a bit of an attitude towards retail that says "well if you moved with the times and didn't try to take all the profits then you wouldn't be undercut by these global giants and you wouldn't be in this position". And this is certainly the case with some big retailers that have been glacial in their adjustment to the world order. But it is certainly not the case for small retailers and ethical retailers like Brown's.
I don't say all this as a 'poor me, I do it so tough', I don't feel that way, I have chosen this, and now it is my job now to find ways to make this business work both in relation to my values and in financial stability. But I also think it is essential that I, and other retailers like me, inform people of why things are the way they are, why things cost what they cost, and why we choose to do things this way.
We love supporting Australian makers and designers, we love supporting businesses that are offering alternative consumption. Sometimes I think 'oh why do I do this, it's just more stuff in the world' but it's not, it is the creativity, the art, the skill of many people offered for sale, and we all love and desire beautiful things to show love, to adorn our bodies and our homes, and to support makers and creators.