Why are Australian designers going overseas to get their clothes made and what impact is that having on the Australian clothing industry?
A quick peek at the manufacturing label on any piece from your favourite Australian designer will more often than not profess ‘Made in (insert low wage country here)’ rather than proudly ‘Made in Australia’ and according to the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia (TFIA) this has long been common practice, with China and India among the biggest ragtraders. In a TFIA study of Australian brands it was revealed, ‘up to 50 percent of clothes now sold in Australia are manufactured overseas, mainly in low-wage countries’, which is great for designers but worrying news for local manufacturers and an important issue to be considered by discerning fashionistas.
The shift from a well protected domestic textiles market to one increasingly reliant on importation of materials and exportation of labour was partly catalysed by the reduction of government tariffs on imported goods in recent decades. It was also due to the ‘recession years of 1991-93 [when] large numbers of clothing and textiles firms closed down and wholesalers increased their direct importing’, according to a Retailing and Textiles Production study conducted by Victoria University. The direct impacts of which was not only a loss of innovative technology, but the loss of a skilled workforce in the industry and subsequently, the inability for Australian manufacturers to meet the volume demands that offshore manufacturers could provide.
However, it’s not just the fact that local manufacturing has become as outdated as bedazzled jeans, but the issue of price which has pushed a lot of Aussie designers offshore. In general, manufacturing overseas in China, India and Bali most commonly is cheaper. The price of labour is greatly reduced and many designers argue there is greater choice of materials. Though at what cost do these appealing aspects of offshore manufacturing come?
For starters, the issue of offshore work standards and the well-publicised matter of worker exploitation and sweatshops is a huge factor that drives price. This is not to say Australian designers employ bad ethical practices when it comes to outsourcing their production, but it is important to recognize that cheap labour often means compromising working conditions. Rather than handballing this responsibility to their overseas suppliers, designers should be aware of whether their workers are being treated fairly. As should shoppers, in terms of knowing if their purchases have been ethically made.
Furthermore, as premium Australian brands charge upwards of hundreds of dollars for their product and the average manufacturing worker in China earns 40cents an hour compared to the $21 hourly average wage of an Australian worker, customers must question if a offshore worker is being charged so little – how can a designer charge so much?
Frankly though, the issue of worker exploitation is also one much closer to home. Back in 2007, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article exposing prominent Aussie designer Lisa Ho for failing to sign a code of practice to protect domestic textile workers from poor pay and sweatshop conditions. When contacted about the issue, Ho had her lips sewn firmly together. No surprises there, but with 300,000 – mainly women currently working in the Australian textile industry at home, it seems rather unfashionable that such a well-known local designer would not support the industry and the right to fair wages and conditions in order to strengthen the quality of local manufacturing.
Credit must be given therefore to Australian designers who choose to support local industry. Arabella Ramsay has long sought to keep production of her self-titled label and its whimsical dresses and retro inspired pieces local (with the exception of her leather goods which are produced in India). As have Bassike, which uses organic fabrics and back local manufacturing. Many up and coming independent brands also strive to produce garments locally but often struggle as many local manufacturers don’t see profit in completing small orders.
Thus, in order to rectify the debilitating effect offshore production has had on the Australian clothing industry, manufacturers and designers must compromise on how to make the best quality product at the most viable price. As “clothing and textile sales are worth $9 billion each year” according to TIFA, we owe it to our local industry to improve Australian manufacturing.
In Australia, we’re increasingly becoming known for our innovative creative industry and so when it comes to textiles manufacturing, our thinking should be fashion-forward instead of following trends. By investing in the Australian clothing industry, we can develop factories with skilled workers and ensure quality products as designers can readily work more closely with the production process. In turn, if manufacturers can agree to produce smaller orders at competitive prices, independent, up and coming Aussie designers can afford to produce garments locally and pave the way for local labels who can be proud to declare ‘Made in Australia’.