#3: WELL MADE CLOTHES
The fashion industry is incredibly complex, but luckily for us, these ladies are making things a bit simpler. Well Made Clothes is a shop-by-your-values marketplace that empowers customers to make informed purchases and connects them to ethical brands.
We visited the WMC team in their sunny Marrickville HQ for a cup of tea and a chat with co-Founders Courtney Sanders and Kelly Elkin, about transparency in the supply chain, the nuances of 'locally made' and how to shop ethically.
Jess: What is Well Made Clothes and how did it come about?
Courtney: Well Made Clothes is a platform that provides information about and the ability to shop clothing based on your values. It started, what, three years ago? I was editing Catalogue and we were doing more and more content around ethics and fashion, mostly to do with feminism and the way that clothes affect and subjugate women in the developed world, like you and me. I started interviewing Kelly and covering her events. Kelly runs Clean Cut, which is like an industry advisory body, and also her label, Alas. So I started learning about the supply chain more and more.
Jess: Did you study fashion?
Courtney: No, I studied journalism. But I was always 'in' the fashion industry. Even when I was working for a music website in New Zealand I was doing shoots on the weekend. I always loved it and always found my way back to it, you know? My mum was a sewer and taught me to sew, it was in my blood.
Jess: Do you make your own clothes?
Courtney: Yeah! Did you make your formal dresses? That's a great moment of high school, working with my mum on shot silk formal dresses! Anyway, the Walkley Foundation and Google sponsor a grant called ‘Innovations In Journalism’. At the time I had a concept where I wanted to combine some sort of click-to-purchase with Catalogue, that had information about local brands or something, I hadn't quite figured it out. Then Kelly had an idea where she wanted to create a directory of responsible brands you could buy. I was like, well I've got the expertise in the content side of things, and you've got the expertise in the supply chain kind of things, so we can work together. If we win the grant then we'll do it. And we won the grant!
Jess: Kelly, what was your background?
Kelly: I have a background in ethical clothing. Even when I was a kid, I was all about upcycling and stuff like that. I was going to do either environmental law or fashion, so decided I'd do fashion but I would try to weave that into it.
Jess: What did you study?
Kelly: I did a bachelor of Fine arts and fashion up at QUT. In that course there was never anything about supply chains or the implications of what we were designing, so every chance I got I would do assignments on that sort of stuff so that I could educate everyone!
Courtney: So we got the grant in 2015 and we started working with our developers in October of that year, we launched in April of the following year. We've been live for a year and a half.
Jess: That's massive guys, it's going so well!
Kelly: It's been really overwhelming, the response. I think it just shows that people are ready for it now. We've been knocking on doors for a long time with the whole ethical movement, but now people are actually caring.
Jess: How do you assess the designers you're going to feature on WMC? How many boxes do they have to tick and how do they prove what they’re claiming?
Courtney: Kelly worked with her partner in Clean Cut to develop a basic code of conduct that all brands have to meet, which is basic labour and environmental standards.
Kelly: The code of conduct was created on the base labour code of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which means you have to have certain standards, like no child labour, making sure your producers have the ability to have unions, making sure that all brands - whether you're sustainable or not, whether you're fair or not - can't be exploiting human rights and can't be exploiting our environment. On top of that you need to meet one of eight values. We created the eight value structure based on what we believe are the most impactful aspects of the supply chain. They are local, vegan, fair, hand-crafted, minimal-waste, sustainable, transparent and gender equality.
Annie: It seems like these days there is so much stuff out there, so people really value a curatorial perspective, which is where you guys come in. For the average consumer it's too hard to start looking into every single brand, so if they can trust someone like WMC, it makes it much easier to shop ethically.
Kelly: I think people get really overwhelmed, even those who want to do good. What we wanted to do with WMC is simplify that and make it an easy task to shop consciously. That's why we developed the framework as well, we wanted to make people understand that there's many ways you can create positive impact.
Courtney: And to help people understand that you don't have to be perfect and even the most ethical brand or consumer can't be perfect. The supply chain is too complex. I don't think we have one brand that meets all eight values, it's just simply too nuanced. So don't get down about not being perfect, instead pick your battle. If you care about the treatment of workers, shop fair. If you care about the environment, shop sustainable. If you care about gender equality, shop gender equality and don't beat yourself up for not doing everything exactly perfect. As someone who was relatively new to ethical fashion when we started talking about this, I felt like I couldn't take part in the conversation because I didn't know about, or felt a bit embarrassed about, my shopping decisions, because they weren't perfectly ethical. So I think it's important to not shame people for not being perfect, you know?
Kelly: You can't be a purist, because it's impossible. We need to be realistic - nobody is going to stop consuming, so we need to offer a better choice. We're consuming 400% more than we were twenty years ago and China alone produces enough clothing in a year to clothe the world four times over. So, just to put it into perspective, there's a lot of stuff, regardless of whether we want it or not. No matter how ethically you produce something, unless someone wants it, you're just creating landfill. It's an interesting time to be in the world of fashion.
Jess: You were saying you can't be perfect and shop by your values, but are there particular values you'd go for above another out of those eight you have? How can someone best navigate all this when they’re choosing a piece of clothing? Should we go by minimal waste? Or where it's made?
Kelly: You should go on what your own personal values are, but from a fashion supply chain issue, to minimise the most environmental or social impact, shop GOTS Certified (Global Organic Textile Standard) products that are Fair Trade or Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) accredited. That way, it assures throughout the supply chain that the welfare of those people has been taken care of. Everyone's probably quite aware of the environmental impacts that the fashion industry has. If you go with sustainable materials you are going to see a massive impact. Sustainability covers a broad spectrum of things; it goes under the dyeing, printing, farming, the processes, whether it's close loop factories or weaving, it encompasses that side of the supply chain. If you divvy it up you've really just got materials and labour, and ‘fair’ and ‘sustainable’ cover those.
Jess: Where does locally made apparel fit in with you guys and within Australia?
Kelly: Well, locally made is really important because of the situation the whole entire world is in! The average garment travels around ten to twenty thousand kilometres from seed to garment, so to be able to have the fabric or garment locally produced cuts down a significant amount of carbon miles. It also ensures your supply chain is shorter, so there is more transparency, and because of this you'll get a fairer supply chain. You'll also be supporting the local economy. You can actually have lower quantities generally, which means you can be more agile and more responsive in the market, working out which designs work and what doesn't and ultimately create less waste. So local production can help support sustainability, transparency, fair labour and waste.
Jess: What are the challenges of making locally?
Kelly: It depends on where you live in the world, but in Australia it's a dying industry. Since everyone went offshore in the 80's, 90's and early 2000's, it's meant that a lot of manufacturers have closed down. We've lost a lot of skill. We have an aging workforce and limited accessibility to good quality production.
Courtney: Then there's obviously the issue of accreditation of “locally made”, and the understanding that local doesn't necessarily mean 'fair'. Sometimes local production can be undertaken by workers in illegal conditions. Transparency is part of that, like ECA certified brands.
Kelly: Yeah, there's this concept that “Made in Australia” means made fairly, because we're a hard yakka nation that treats everyone like they’re true blue fair dinkum, but that's just not the case. The majority of our workers are newly arrived immigrants, the majority don't have English as their first language, and the majority are women. So that means you have a workforce that doesn't understand that they're being exploited, which means you do get widespread exploitation. If we go back to what the industry used to look like, there were a lot of manufacturers and factories. Because it has slowly been taken offshore, it's now smaller factories with a lot of subcontractors and outworkers, who are often paid by piece as opposed to given a particular wage or minimum hours. It can get quite murky, if they're paid by piece and not represented by a union, or they're a woman who has recently come from a developing country who needs work and they're being essentially pitched against each other for the best price. You've got women working for $3 an hour here.
People don't really associate ‘Australian Made’ with slave labour, but we have sweatshops in this local vicinity right now. I can tell you that within a 3km radius of where we are, there will be women and men vastly underpaid in a very expensive country. That's why things like ECA and unions are really important. So it's about knowing your manufacturer and being smart about it, not just going into a small factory and thinking, ‘Oh they seem like nice guys, they have lots of smiling men and women behind the sewing machines’. But how many products do they actually produce? They could have a whole bunch of other workers they need to get in or outsource.
Courtney: That's a massive problem globally as well, it's not just a local problem. The way a lot of big companies skirt the responsibility of slave labour is by contracting to a factory that seems to have good standards, but then that factory subcontracts out and they don't look into taking responsibility beyond the first tier of the chain. You have mental stories of when sequin tops were cool, there were entire communities sitting at home, sitting in a cafe, sitting on the side of a street, beading tops.
Jess: How do people get away with underpaying workers like that that in Australia?
Kelly: The same way they get away with it in America, in India, etcetera. You have people who need to work, people who are unaware of their rights, and then people who are happy to exploit that. 'By piece' could actually be legal, but how many pieces are they expected to produce in a certain amount of time so they can actually get that money? It goes easily unnoticed, even in places like Australia, because you don't have them working in the factories where they have OHS. The majority are working from home, working out of garages, coming in and out as they need to get them in; it's really hard to find them. Organisations like Fairwear and ECA work closely with these communities.
Jess: With more accreditation and transparency, and the demand for or rise in sustainable and locally made fashion, is that likely to improve the situation for these workers? Or because of the cost consumers are used to paying for their garments, will that mean that those jobs will no longer exist here?
Kelly: A bit of both. Because the industry is dying, people are incredibly desperate to get work. They'll feel pressured to accept really low paid work. But with people like ECA and the unions really trying to work hard to better conditions for workers there will be an improvement. There has already been an improvement.
Jess: Will it bump up the cost of clothing for the consumer?
Kelly: I don't think it necessarily has to bump up the price, I think it depends how your production is structured. Producing overseas is not necessarily a cheaper option, especially when you think of China and India and the rising middle class - now everyone's moving to Africa so they can get cheap labour - even if you do that you need to consider, as a brand, that unless you're producing massive units, it’s not worth the import duties. It's not worth the freight duties and it's not worth having to pay a production manager over there, essentially, to do all those things. It doesn't necessarily have to be more expensive to make in Australia but it depends how you structure your production and your supply chain.
Courtney: It comes down to the idea of sale and waste as well. If you have to meet minimum margins to make overseas and it doesn't sell, you're left with dead stock.
Kelly: You can produce ethically and you can make a profit. It's the same as any type of business, you just need to be a good business owner and have a good business strategy. Everyone thinks, oh, producing fairly or ethically would be more expensive! But if you care about your design, if you care about your quality, if you care about your market and know your audience then you have no problem.
Annie: It shouldn't be, ‘oh it's too expensive, I guess I'll just take the exploitation route instead!’
Kelly: You're right, do you take yourself seriously as a designer? Because how can a product be beautiful if it has a really ugly history. It's as simple as that.
Jess: Annie and I were saying, when we started this project, we're not only documenting the rise and demand of ‘locally made’, but also a dying industry.
Kelly: Are we flogging a dead horse? Or are we going to be part of the revolution of locally made? It could go both ways. There's always going to be a place for locally made production because of small units and the shorter turnaround time, but we don't have the skills that we used to have here.
Jess: I think it becomes easier when you can put a face to the supply chain, especially for people in cities. When we shop here, we’re totally disconnected to the farmers, growers, machinists, etcetera.
Courtney: Also, putting a face to the name helps people understand why locally made clothing is more expensive. I don't know if you saw that thing that blew up with the Creatures of Comfort dress on the internet. It was an Amish-inspired green smock dress that cost $450 and the internet went mental, like, how can this disgusting dress be $450? It made me so angry for so many reasons. Firstly, to me it’s inherently misogynistic to judge a frumpy dress as 'disgusting' because it's not what women ‘should’ be wearing. Secondly, you are saying this is ‘outrageously expensive’, but Creatures of Comfort are "ethically produced" - people are paid fairly, they use high quality materials. That's what it costs to make something like that. It's the same kind of people who are criticising the price of that who criticise slave labour and ‘Made in China’, yet are naive as to what goes into the production of a fairly made item of clothing.
Jess: How have your customers responded to cost with WMC?
Kelly: We have a sort of soft green or soft ethical consumer, so they're already understanding the quality of a garment and the value proposition that we're offering. A lot of that hard work of trying to convince people why garments cost what they cost on the site is a lot easier, I feel, because they're coming to us because they want to find out more, they want to value their clothes and have a new relationship with their wardrobe.
Courtney: When we get criticism it's usually when we've done a Facebook ad that's gone out to a new or broader audience and the comments will be like, 'oh this dress is so expensive!', but I've noticed a massive decline in the criticism even over the last year. I think there is a change in consumer habits happening around buying less and buying better. I think it's becoming very cool to have a clothing uniform, wear the same thing, know where it came from. In the same way that the ethical food movement happened and it became cool to go to the local markets, it's becoming cool to wear something and say, ‘Oh my friend made it for me’, or ‘This girl in Melbourne has her own label and she made it for me’, you know? That's becoming a cultural currency, which is really great.
Jess: Do you think that's a lasting trend, or temporary like any other fashion trend? I've seen so many people with Patagonia branded stuff, but is that just 'in' now and going to go out of fashion again?
Courtney: I think people are adopting it for different reasons. There will be people who stick with it long term and there'll be people who just wear the Patagonia T-shirt while it's cool. But I do think there's lots of evidence to suggest that millennials are the first generation driven to make their decisions around what companies they choose to work for or choose to buy from, based on the responsibility they feel to the environment and people in developing countries. I think we're the first generation to reject the over-consumption that's been building since the 50’s right through the baby boomer generation, and that's a massive cultural shift. That's bigger than a trend.
Did you see the Gorpcore thing? As ridiculous as giving a name to that trend is, it's the end result of years of that movement building. I know that people give so much shit to normcore and Gorpcore, but I think it's actually quite a meaningful movement away from mass-consumption. The fact there is a fashion trend or movement around looking like you care is massive. The idea that ethical fashion has become cool is something that you, ten years ago, would never have thought would happen.
Kelly: There have been waves of ethical fashion movements, for sure. The difference with this movement and how it has grown in the past ten years is that we now have so much accessibility, with the internet and social media, which is proving to be such a powerful tool to access people who normally wouldn't consider ethical fashion. That’s proving that it can't just be a trend, because once people know, they can't unknow. Once you start supporting that kind of thing, it's always going to be in the back of your mind. There will always be that kind of person who will go for the Patagonia tee right now cause it's super hot, but there's that increase in general awareness where fast fashion is getting to a point where it's almost unappealing.
Jess: Do you think that rise in conscious consumerism through social media in the last decade is on par with, or dwarfed by, the rise in crazy online sales, fast fashion and Instagram and Youtube haulers?
Kelly: I think that the rise in social media has made sure that even the fast fashion outlets have to be more accountable. In fast fashion or massive companies, like Nike or David Jones or Country Road, everyone is starting to feel the global and consumer pressure to increase their standards and develop a more transparent or ethical supply chain. Australia has always been behind, and we're still behind, but the more we become a global world, the more they see that the only way we can actually compete in the fashion industry is to have that global standard.
Courtney: The social media thing is interesting to me, because I think for all of the bad it's done in terms of driving the idea that we should always wear different things all the time, we expect to know our celebrities in a real way and from that we also expect quite a lot of value from our celebrity. We expect the popstar we like to be a feminist. We expect the ambassador for a clothing company to understand a supply chain or why they're representing that company. If they wear a t-shirt they have to believe in the slogan of that t-shirt. The way social media has made celebrities accountable for their decisions trickles down to making us think about being accountable for our decisions as well.
Jess: What about big brands who jump on a social or environmental movement for marketing. If they're putting big bucks into marketing that contributes to normalising a positive message, is that ever OK?
Courtney: That's asking whether tokenism is OK, right? I don't know what the answer to that is. I don't have an answer. I think it's inherently problematic for brands to hijack political movements to sell a problem. But if in that hijacking of a political movement they actually draw attention to and help affect positive change with the root problems with that political issue, is that OK? I don't know the answer. In fashion it's even more complicated, or as complicated - I just know more about it so we find it more nuanced - the ideas of fast fashion companies greenwashing to sell product does actually do quite a bit of harm, because it confuses the consumer about what terminology means and what is good and bad. They have these massive marketing budgets, so what they say becomes the status quo in those areas. From my perspective, when a massive company like H&M releases on a grand scale a green policy, it's really problematic because it confuses consumers about the truth of that issue.
Kelly: I agree with you, and I’ve spent my whole life trying to make people understand that you've got to push past the greenwashing. It's really disappointing when you work so hard and then you have these huge companies come in and go, 'we're doing the best thing ever!' when they're not, necessarily. H&M's recycling week is a really good example. It's like, cool, you've got this buy-back scheme, but in reality you go in to donate poor quality clothing made of blended materials. Once you blend materials, you can't break them down to repurpose them. But you get a voucher, so you go in and buy more. It's not solving a problem, it's a bandaid solution.
But another thing about H&M is that it has been the largest producer of organic cotton. If you think about the impact that has on farmers and the organic cotton industry, that impact for to all of us tiny little brands trying to do 100% organic, they can actually make widespread change. It goes to show how complex it is, nothing is black and white. Because if you really want to get into it, and we could sit here for days, that organic cotton could not be high quality, so are you producing just another shit product but just doing it chemical free?
Courtney: It does nothing to solve the problem that you're still producing hundreds of millions of garments every year that we don't need.
Annie: And pushing consumers to buy a new thing every week.
Kelly: Going, 'oh but you can buy it, because it's good, so buy five! You can be guilt-free!'
Courtney: The big question sitting on top of all this is why this ethical movement now? I think it does come down to the fact that we are a generation that is ready for change in the way we consume.