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Who Made My Clothes in Australia? Our Fashion Revolution Event

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Who Made My Clothes in Australia? Our Fashion Revolution Event

Ask the majority of Australians where their clothes are made, and chances are they will guess: overseas. Yet, the reality is that we do, in fact, still have a thriving garment industry in Australia. That’s right — we still make things here on Australian shores.

To discuss the current state of the Australian textile, clothing and footwear (TCF) industry and more, Ethical Clothing Australia’s latest event — the aptly titled: “Who Made My Clothes…in Australia?” — brought together a panel of industry experts to share their collective hopes and challenges in creating a more ethical fashion future.

Held during Fashion Revolution Week 2024 at the majestic Queen Victoria Women’s Centre in Melbourne (Naarm), the event was moderated by renowned sustainability communicator, author, and host of the Wardrobe Crisis podcast, Clare Press. 

Flanked by industry representatives from the Textile, Clothing and Footwear (TCF) Union, tertiary educators, and leaders from Ethical Clothing Australia-accredited businesses, the eager crowd of over 100 attendees were treated to a vibrant exchange of stories, ideas, and visions for the future of the industry. Here are some of our key reflections.

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L-R: Nguyet Nguyen (TCF Union), Linh (Outworker), Rachel Reilly (Ethical Clothing Australia), Beth Macpherson (TCF Union), Clare Press, Edwina Walsh (Assembled Threads), Dewi Cooke (The Social Studio), Kirsten Lee (Collarts and Fashion Revolution ANZ)

Australia’s thriving garment industry

There remains a common misperception that Australia no longer produces garments locally. Though the scale of the industry has diminished over the decades, there remains a vital niche of garment production in Australia. 

In fact, Australia’s fashion and textile industry contributes more than $27.2 billion to the local economy, generating $7.2 billion in exports each year, and employing almost half a million people, 77% of whom are women and who work in manufacturing roles (Source: Australian Fashion Council, 2021).

Often focused on high-quality, bespoke fashion that supports local craftspersonship and sustainable practices, we do have a long and storied history of manufacturing clothing, textiles and footwear across the country.

Does that mean every garment in Australia is manufactured ethically? Unfortunately not. 

Supply chains can be as complex here as they are offshore, which means the same opportunities for exploitation and poor working conditions exist in Australia, as in any other part of the world. And our panellists did not shy away from this reality.

“Many brands still don't really know where their clothes were made…they don't know where the fabrics were made, and if you don't know where and by whom, how can you know that it was done ethically? Well, the answer is you can't, [but] ‘surely’ we don't have this problem in Australia?”

— Clare Press, Moderator
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Surely, not in Australia?

Responding to this somewhat playful provocation from moderator Clare Press, National Compliance Officer for the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union and indomitable advocate for workers’ rights, Beth Macpherson, shared:

“Well, unfortunately we do. The [TCF] industry is a thriving industry in Australia. I have a team of people that work nationally doing compliance work and, unfortunately, 99.9% of companies that we audit have some level of non-compliance. And that can be an occupational health safety issue, right through to underpayment of wages or entitlements.”

— Beth Macpherson, TCF Union

Whether it be because workers lack access to culturally relevant resources and support, or because people are afraid to speak out in fear of losing current or future work — there are a myriad of factors that contribute to unsafe and unfair working conditions and increase the risk of exploitation.

Putting workers at the centre

Speaking powerfully to the exploitation that often lurks in the shadows of local production chains, we heard from Nguyet Nguyen (Outworker Outreach Officer, TCF Union), and current outworker in the TCF industry, Linh. 

With Nguyet’s support, Linh shared her story in Vietnamese — learning to sew in Vietnam before escaping the country in the 1980s after the fall of South Vietnam, arriving in Australia and eventually purchasing sewing machines to work from home. 

While this style of work gave her the flexibility to raise a family, it also meant she worked long hours, sometimes seven days a week, and often felt isolated and vulnerable. 

“At the time, I thought it's easy to choose to work from home, but when I started working, then [I] found out that it's a lot of stress because of [being a] contractor. You have to complete [garments] in time. And that's when I have to study English, when the children are in bed. And the money…maybe I have to wait one or two months before I can get my money. I [get paid] per piece, it works out around $4 to $5 per hour. That's the most I can get.””

— Linh, Outworker

Despite piecework — where workers are paid a fixed rate for each unit produced — being an illegal practice under the TCFAI Award, this is an all-too-common tale in the industry. Linh, and thousands of workers like her, must rely on their employers to do the right thing, which we know is not always the case.

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Did you know?

An ‘outworker’, in the context of the textile, clothing and footwear industries, typically refers to a person who performs paid work from their own home rather than in a factory or business location. Outworkers are often subcontracted to complete specific tasks, such as sewing, cutting fabric, or assembling garments. 

Nguyet, who herself worked as an outworker for over 20 years after migrating to Australia, shared: 

“At home, I have my machines and the radio. So I was listening to the radio and I heard about a course that the Union advertised. I was really happy and quickly registered and did the course, and from them I got another contact, and a lot of information from the Union about our rights as outworkers.”

— Nguyet Nguyen, TCF Union

Now, Nguyet shares culturally safe education as well as ongoing support and resources on the legal rights for workers in Australia as an Outworker Outreach Officer for the TCF Union. What both Linh and Nguyet’s stories highlight is the oft-hidden ‘human’ element to discussions about ethical fashion and sustainability; a reminder to us all that behind every garment is someone’s hands.

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The fashion revolution we need

The vulnerability of garment workers, particularly those from migrant, refugee, and asylum-seeker backgrounds, underscores the critical need for certifications like Ethical Clothing Australia’s Accreditation and initiatives like Fashion Revolution Week, which are designed to improve transparency and accountability in supply chains. 

It also emphasises the essential work of the TCF Union’s Outwork Outreach team, who often share similar lived experiences and cultural backgrounds to those they are supporting. As panellist and Program Coordinator Fashion & Sustainability at Collarts, Kirsten Lee, explained: “this is why it’s so important for us to hear the voices of people who work in this industry”. 

Kirsten, who is also a founding member of Fashion Revolution in Australia & Aotearoa New Zealand, also shared her hope that the fashion industry can embrace ethical practices and inclusive growth, as it did in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2013.

“Within a few months of that disaster, we had a Fashion Revolution Committee in over 53 countries. The huge response from the industry was a cry that ‘this is enough, enough is enough’, and so this wasn't the first disaster in the industry, but it was the biggest…and often exploiting the most vulnerable.

“This is why we're focusing primarily on calling for transparency in the industry, so that there can be more impact in terms of regulating factory conditions and workers rights.”

— Kirsten Lee, Fashion Revolution

To create an equitable and safe industry for every worker, we must make space for them to speak openly and be listened to. To feel supported by the industry they are not just a part of, but that would not exist without them. 

So what role can we all play in bringing about a true fashion revolution — one with the ethical values and dignity of workers at the centre?

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Shaping a more ethical future

The textile, clothing and footwear industry has the immense potential to be a powerful force for positive change, and leaders like Edwina Walsh and Dewi Cooke are shaping what this future could look like.

Translating ethical ideals into practice, Edwina is the founder of Assembled Threads — an Ethical Clothing Australia-accredited manufacturer and social enterprise providing training and employment for disadvantaged groups at an ethical wage. After a lifelong career in the ‘rag trade’ as a former product developer, Edwina shared the benefits of the ‘earn as you learn’ model for technical skill-building, as well as the power of social procurement and buying locally, particularly when it comes to supporting Australian manufacturing industries. 

“The Victorian Government had announced this social procurement policy, and I was like, this is a no brainer for the garment Industry. [The VIC government] was saying, ‘We’re the biggest procurers of goods and services and we want to buy local. That is such a great match for the industry, and I knew that the migrant women and men coming in had strong commercial or generational domestic skills.

"And the idea was, could we embed industry skills and training to make commercial garments and commercial garments procured at volume?”

— Edwina Walsh, Assembled Threads

Announcing on stage to rapturous applause, Edwina shared a recent partnership with a big player in the construction industry that has resulted in the production of high-vis vests. What makes these vests so special is that they are made from fabric that is not only made with recycled fibres, but is made right here in Australia by workers who are skilled, protected and respected as part of an accredited business. 

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Meanwhile, Dewi Cooke, CEO of The Social Studio, leads a not-for-profit social enterprise offering training and work opportunities in fashion to refugee and new migrant communities. With a focus on ethical manufacturing, accredited training, and socially conscious retail, Dewi is creating a blueprint for what the fashion industry could be: inclusive, ethical, and impactful. She shared:

“It's so interesting to me to hear the sort of the state of the industry from one end of the spectrum, because I think the end that we operate in is really trying to kind of realise a different future for textiles, clothing and how we make them. What we're really trying to do is show: what are the ways to be a worker and to be valued, and what [does] a good workplace and a good environment look like.”

— Dewi Cooke, The Social Studio
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Something to treasure

Together, we must continue to amplify the voices of workers and advocate for ethical and sustainable practices in the industry — because these aren’t issues only happening ‘over there’; there’s still plenty of work to be done in our own backyard.

Done well, this industry can be a core part of valuing and celebrating people’s cultural identity, technical skills, and dedication to their craft. It also plays a key role in cultivating community, and fostering a sense of pride and passion in being “part of making something tangible,” as Dewi put it. Clare agreed, adding:

“To be able to be part of a manufacturing culture that builds community and jobs and potentially a product that has…an ethical substance to it; that makes us treasure it.””

— Clare Press

Riding a growing wave of hope that things are changing, the event left us feeling not only better informed but galvanised, with a reminder to think locally and act ethically, recognising our power as consumers to demand transparency and fairness, not just during Fashion Revolution Week but all year round. 

Ethical Clothing Australia would like to warmly thank our venue hosts Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, as well as moderator extraordinaire Clare Press, and our expert panellists for their insights and generosity: Beth Macpherson (TCF Union), Nguyet Nguyen (TCF Union), Linh (Outworker), Kirsten Lee (Collarts and Fashion Revolution ANZ), Dewi Cooke (The Social Studio), and Edwina Walsh (Assembled Threads).

This event was delivered as part of Ethical Clothing Australia’s Victorian Government funding. Thank you to the Victorian Department of Jobs, Skills, Industry and Regions for their support in providing a platform for the voices of workers to be heard.

To find out more about Ethical Clothing Australia’s upcoming events, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn for more stories about local garment workers.