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Made in China, designed in New Zealand: How ethical can this be?

It is possible for fashion designed in New Zealand but produced in China to be ethical, says designer Annah Stretton. But it's always important to question the real human cost of how garments are made.

There has been a lot of publicity recently around TearFund and the launch of their website which endeavours to inform consumers on just how their garments are made, hoping to arm them with information that applies a conscious choice to their clothing purchases.

So in channelling New Zealand labels, (it was surprising how few were actually on this site) they grade the industry according to how conscious they are with their clothing manufacturing practices, ensuring that no child labour, or alarming wage rates and conditions are involved and inflicted in the manufacture of their garments. I am not sure that many of the smaller to medium size designers and manufacturers of clothing can be 100 percent certain that none of the practices that TearFund set out to highlight and ultimately eliminate are so easy to identify.

Making clothes off-shore has long since become a reality for so many of us in the New Zealand rag trade, as the diminishing manufacturing and supply base continues. It is extremely difficult to achieve the variety of fabric and accessories, let alone the diversity of manufacturing practices (is denim made in New Zealand anymore, and I’m not sure that we have many knitwear or dye plants either) that survival demands. The manufacturing base of large CMT factories that existed 20 years ago when I first entered the rag trade has certainly been replaced by resourceful Chinese immigrants working with their extended families out of their garages – replicating and using a skill and ability that they have brought with them.

Fortunately, we were able to see the tide turning, and were provided with an opportunity to investigate China as supply base when I became part of the MBA course at Auckland University.

Traveling to China with the students who had chosen to complete their assignment on my clothing company gave me a real insight into the possibilities to really grow my business offering. Today with a lot of blood, sweat and tears, we have developed this platform of construction, and we proudly make 70 percent of our clothing ethically out of China.

I travel to China three to four times a year, and work closely with, and in the factories to ensure not only that our product is constructed in a way that meets our exacting quality standards, but also made in a place that meets the expectations of ourselves and our customers re the working conditions and payment of the workers.

I agree that to work otherwise, or to place orders without knowledge of the supply chain, is to promote the appalling conditions that are being uncovered by initiatives such as TearFund. It then becomes even more alarming in that it appears the bigger brands are the ones most likely to be advancing these difficult work places where they, due to their large quantities, could start to turn the tide and have influence with the chain of supply.

As consumers we can do so much more – yes, it will always be cheaper to buy an Asian manufactured product – but it’s now time to question the real human cost of how these are made. I am sure we can never eliminate this situation as so many, even in New Zealand do not have the luxury of making choices that will lead to a higher expense (money they simply don’t have.) Those that can, should certainly lead the charge, in that they will eventually turn the tide. I guess the bigger question here is ensuring that the luxury brands are not party to this human misery, given the astronomical prices that they inflict on their customer.

I do, however, believe that endeavouring to make claims that all clothing, accessories, fabrics and trims are ethically made will be extremely difficult for most of us in the New Zealand fashion industry. We are such a little blip on the world’s garment production stage, that to even endeavour to ensure that fabrics, buttons, threads and zips that we use are free from the conditions that TearFund try to eliminate becomes extremely difficult. I guess it’s about doing as much as you can, being as aware and as informed as you can, making conscious choice where you have the knowledge, and always seeking to up-skill that knowledge. With all of these things, it takes time to create ethical sources, and get the change that we all want.