What the "Made in" tag tells you about living wages

What the "Made in" tag tells you about living wages

Want to know whether the hands that made your clothes were paid fairly? Next time you go shopping for clothes, check the "Made In" tag. If it says Bangladesh, Vietnam or India, then those who made it probably were not paid a living wage, so avoid buying it if you have another option. Instead, pick clothes made in China, Indonesia, or Australia. (Though read on for a big disclaimer on buying clothes made in China.)

Or as an even better option, buy secondhand, so that you're not adding demand into the unfair production system of the fashion industry!

Read on for the nitty gritty details. And a disclaimer - I'm trying to present an incredibly complex system in a simplified way here to help you make a little ethical switch. In reality, things are way more complicated than this. But let's start with simple switches and build from there!

Australia's clothing manufacturers

In the last year, the top five countries supplying the Australian clothing industry were China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, and Indonesia.

Biggest clothing import countries: China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Indonesia

    Although it might look like China is the only major player, both Bangladesh and Vietnam have been increasing their share of the market, and are particularly significant suppliers for some of the big low-cost department stores. If you go look in your wardrobe or your child's wardrobe right now, you'll likely find items from at least those top three on the list.

    The good and bad news is, there is a vast difference between these countries in terms of whether clothing factory workers are paid a living wage. Unfortunately, local legal minimum wages are quite low in some of these countries, and this combined with Australian brands' search for the cheapest manufacturing price at all costs pushes factory wages down to unsustainable low levels.

    If you're looking for a very basic rule of thumb for whether the clothes you're buying have relied on modern slavery, check that "Made in …" tag.

    Here's how the wages paid to garment workers from those countries compare with an actual living wage for that country:

    Living wages vs actual factory wages in countries supplying clothes to Australia

    So if you want a simple rule for a better chance that the hands that made your clothes are paid fairly and able to afford basics like food, water, healthcare, and basic education for their kids - buy clothes made in China, or maybe Indonesia (or better yet, Australia!). And avoid clothes made in Bangladesh especially, as it has the largest gap, with average factory wages only 57% of a living wage.

    Living wage percentages by country

    A BIG caveat on buying from China:

    Better Cotton Initiative BCI logo

    Before you go switching to buying solely clothes from China, you should be aware that a huge proportion of clothes made in China may be made using cotton sourced from slave labour. This is a huge issue and a topic for a different article, but if you want to ensure that your purchases are not contributing to this, one option is to limit your purchasing to items with the "Better Cotton Initiative" (BCI) tag. BCI in principle does not certify any cotton made through slave labour, and although it's complicated and not a perfect solution, they are taking steps in the right direction.

    I thought brands had started to improve?

    Yes and no. In the last few years, many brands have now released a "Modern Slavery Statement" and have committed to work towards improving wages. Some good work is happening, for example almost all of the factories used by Kmart and Target have projects to improve wages. This is great! But we don't know the details of what those projects are, how much impact they're having, how long they'll take… And the latest data (from the Ethical Fashion Guide) shows that they are still not yet actually paying living wages in ANY of their factories.Ethical fashion guide score card cropped 
    Out of the companies in the "Top 20%" list above, only Mighty Good Basics pays living wages in 100% of their factories. For most in the list, 0% of factories are paid living wages.

    Until we start to see actual changes on the factory floor, the best way to make sure you're buying clothes where workers have been paid fairly is to avoid clothes made in some of those top countries with low wages.

    Instead, buy clothes made in countries that are paid a living wage, like China (checking for that BCI tag), Indonesia, or even Australia!

    Most big clothing brands in Australia use a variety of factories across the world, so each individual item may have a different "Made in" tag. Next time you go shopping for clothes, check the tag. If it says Bangladesh, Vietnam or India, then those who made it may not have been paid a living wage, so avoid buying it if you have another option.

    What if I'm buying from a smaller brand that claims to be ethical and pay fair wages, but manufactures in one of those countries?

    Although many/most workers in Bangladesh, Vietnam and India are not paid living wages, it is still possible for brands to work with factories to ensure workers there are paid enough. Many small ethical retailers (for example, Etiko) have suppliers from India - but the difference is they are carefully working with a small handful of manufacturing companies, and tracing their products to make sure they are produced ethically.

    One way you can be more confident in this case would be to look for a certification such as the SA8000, which certifies living wages among many other social accountability factors. Usually, if a brand sources from SA8000 manufacturers, this will be highlighted on their website.

    SA8000 certification by country:

    In Bangladesh, only 3 factories have the SA8000 certification. None of these supply Target, Kmart, Big W, Best & Less or Country Road. One of the certified companies is a supplier to H&M, however this is just one among literally HUNDREDS of their Bangladeshi suppliers.
    "Made in Bangladesh" - Likelihood workers were paid living wages: VERY LOW

    In Vietnam, there are a few more factories with SA8000 certification (around 50). One of these supplies each of Kmart and Target, and one or two are suppliers for Country Road. For Country Road, this probably makes up the majority of their "Made in Vietnam" clothes. However for Kmart and Target, this is only one supplier out of around 20.
    "Made in Vietnam" - Likelihood workers were paid living wages: LOW

    In India, there are many more factories with SA8000 certification (600 or so). Out of the total number of factories in India, this is still a small portion (possibly around 10%), but it does mean that it is very achievable for a brand to be sure they are paying fair wages to their factory workers.
    "Made in India" - Likelihood workers were paid living wages: POSSIBLE

    Note: the SA8000 is just one of many certifications out there. I'm working on an article summarising some of the others to look out for, and will link it here when it's available!

    What about buying secondhand?

    Is it worth checking the "Made in" tag if you're buying clothes secondhand? Maybe!

    On the one hand, no matter whether I bought an item new or secondhand, I still feel a bit ick thinking that it may have been made through modern slavery.

    On the other hand, if someone else bought clothing new, then decided they were done with it and threw it out (into a clothing bin), then by me taking that item and giving it a second life on my child:

    • I'm not creating any new injustice,
    • I'm not adding any demand into the system for those unfairly-made clothes
    • I'm saving it from being sent to landfill

      For now, I'm not worrying about the origins of things I buy secondhand - no matter where they started, I'm doing a good thing by letting those clothes live out the rest of their life rather than prematurely heading to landfill.

      In Conclusion:

      Here are your best options to find clothes made with fair wages:

      • Buy secondhand and sidestep the issue!
      • Buy from small retailers that are trying to be ethical and have traced their sourcing to certified (e.g. SA8000) manufacturers
      • If you're going to buy from a big brand or department store, avoid clothes made in Bangladesh, Vietnam and India.
      • If you buy clothes made in China, make sure to look for the "BCI" tag.
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