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Ethical fashion: Why we feel guilty purchasing from Kmart

The panel was hosted by Natalie Cutler-Welsh, and featured editor of Good magazine Carolyn Enting, sustainable blogger Ethically Kate, founder of OKI for all Kerith McKenzie-Brown, and Laurie Foon, founder of the Sustainable Business Network. 

The talk started with a robust discussion around the problem with fast fashion. Kerith noted that the main problem for consumers is appreciating why a t-shirt should cost more than $8. Kate says that people sometimes apologise to her when they say they bought a cheap Kmart t-shirt. Kate doesn’t want people apologising to her. It’s not her that they’re harming, but those being exploited throughout the supply chain. 

The Rana Plaza tragedy was something the industry and consumers could not unsee. As Carolyn puts it, everyone has to wear clothes, and a pivotal shift in thinking is attributed to portrayals in the media of poor working conditions and discarded textiles in rubbish dumps. Now that people are feeling guilty when they purchase an $8 Kmart t-shirt, their mindsets are slowly shifting towards consuming more ethically.  

Turning to the impact of fashion on the environment, the apparel industry makes up 10% of the world’s global carbon emissions. After oil, it is the second largest industrial polluter. With this in mind, Kerith believes we should give clothes a new life after wearing them. As a business owner, she says it’s wise to offer a product rebate to control where her clothes end up, which also allows her to repurpose them for a second life. The circular economy is at play. 

So, what’s the deal with shopping with fast fashion retailers? Will they change and adapt? And should we boycott them? 

Laurie says that when we buy from retailers, we consent to their production practices. So, for the likes of H&M, we should support their Conscious Collection. This signifies to them that this is what the customer wants – and they will then be motivated to improve their practices across the board. On this basis, we should also utilise H&M’s Garment Collection Program for used and unwanted clothes, although the irony is that H&M’s fast fashion practices combined with mass consumption by consumers assisted in creating this excess waste in the first place. 

Laurie proudly says that she recently bought pants from Country Road made of eco-friendly material REFIBRA™ (recycled cotton). We need to actively support these types of decisions, in order to encourage these companies to do more. We should engage with the staff in-store, as well as at a higher level. The likes of H&M and Country Road are the companies that have buying power, and the ultimate ability to improve working conditions and environmental processes. 

Helpfully, Kate reminded us that we also shouldn’t flat-out boycott particular types of stores. For example, if everyone bought from an op-shop and never purchased anything new, it would ultimately be unsustainable for the economy. Kerith says that we shouldn’t stop purchasing products in from other countries, as this is harming nations from developing. We need to diversify our approach if we want our impact to be broad and effective. 

Ultimately, New Zealand companies have a long way to go when it comes to innovations in sustainability. We need to take more risks, and invest in R&D.

Although the talk could have gone on forever, all good things must come to an end. It ended on a high note, with the message that we must be the change. Feeling inspired, we left armed with knowledge to push for better industry standards. 

This was originally published on The Register.

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