For a long period of time, consumers have been left in the dark when it comes to understanding clothing labels. Most of us complain about how scratchy or annoying they are, cutting them out completely from our garments. As brand transparency is increasing globally, this is the time not only for label tags to become more helpful but for consumers to understand them better.
Traditionally, labels have been used to showcase a brand logo and care instructions. Labels currently show brand logos, care instructions and material, but imagine the potential for future labels.
Who Made My Clothes?
Our labels don’t tell the full story. Every label represents a hidden story of connections, from the farmer who grew the cotton, the man who spun the threads, to the lady who sewed them together…Our labels need to stop cutting out the information we want.” – Fashion Revolution blog, 2015
In an increasingly globalised market, we are all used to our clothing labels stating ‘Made in China’. This, however, is not enough information for the consumer to understand who made their clothes. Thanks to reports and campaigning from Oxfam’s What She Makes and ethical fashion advocacy organisation Fashion Revolution, we now know that a high majority of garment workers worldwide aren’t provided with a living wage. In the What She Makes report it states:
“Asia provides around 91% of the garments sold in Australia, with China being the top sourcing destination, followed by Bangladesh, which provides just over 9% of all garments sold here. Other key source countries for the Australian market include Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, and India. In Bangladesh, the second-largest source country for garments into Australia, it is legal to pay the women who make our clothes as little as 39 cents an hour. All of these countries have a legal minimum wage that is less than $1 an hour.”
Labelling can contain certifications which are evidence of workers being paid fairly, such as Fairtrade Australia. Fairtrade ensures that over 1.65 million workers are fairly treated and paid a fair wage. There are other certifications on a label which are evidence of works treated ethically, such as Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA). Traditionally, stamps in clothing labels in America were evidence of a well-made product in good conditions, Tedium states “At the turn of the 20th century, union labels were used by a variety of labor groups, both inside and outside of garments. In fact, the first example of such labels came from cigar-makers in 1874, who used it as a way to highlight the higher product quality compared with products made elsewhere.” For those that don’t have certifications, it by no means indicates unethical treatment but make sure to look into their worker’s rights on their website. Good On You is also an app in Australia that can help guide ethical fashion choices.
In a dream world, the clothing label needs to highlight specifically who and where the garment is made and under what conditions. Some ethical brands are already doing this, cosmetics brand Lush is a perfect example of using stickers with the location, name, and face of each maker. I expect more from my clothing labels and I want more of a connection to the maker to ensure they are fairly treated. If your clothing label and the brand’s website do not provide enough information, write to them and ask – Who made my clothes?
The garment material has a huge impact on both the environment and the quality of the clothing, affecting the number of wears and comfort. The material can be incredibly confusing and to this day, there’s no ‘right’ answer for what clothing should be made from. It’s important to look at the fibres and be well-informed of the pros and cons for both the environment and your own comfort. Also look for clothing labels with material certification such as GOTS (organic cotton certification). I’d advise steering clear of synthetic fibers (polyester blends) if possible, the less plastic in the world the better.
Here are the pros and cons of commonly used textiles:
+ Natural material, renewable source, breathable
– Water-intensive, prone to damage as natural, requires land, chemical-intensive
+ Natural material, soft, no chemicals
– More expensive to produce, water-intensive, requires land
Polyester fibres (synthetic fabrics such as nylon, acrylic, acetate)
+ Strong, dries fast, cheap, flexible, potentially recycled, versatile, can blend with cotton
– Made from petroleum (non-renewable), doesn’t break down easily, releases plastic microfibers into the ocean when washing which is a HUGE problem, links to negative effects on health, doesn’t breath easily, heavily polluting production
Mixed fibres (Tencel, rayon)
+ cheap, versatile, easy to dye, highly absorbent
– heavily polluting production, doesn’t last as well as polyester
+ Strong fabric, soft, sweat resistant, breathable, natural, grows quickly, cheap to grow
– Generally blended with synthetic fibres, mostly made from a chemical-heavy manufacturing process
+ Natural, durable, warm, dirt and water resistant
– Made from an animal, heavy, hard to wash, animals consume water and land which is environmentally damaging
For a full list of fabrics, click here.
“What’s a shopper to do? The best bet is stick to this simple ethos: Buy better clothes. Buy less of them. Wear them more. There’s no more certain way to reduce your impact than to reduce the amount of clothes you consume and to keep those clothes for a long time. Just try to wash to them only as needed. Laundry uses a lot of water and energy, too.” ‘Your organic cotton t-shirt might be worse for the environment than regular cotton’, Quartz 2017
This part of the garment label is actually one of the most essential parts. Clothing care can make a big difference to the length of time your clothes survive, the longer they survive in good quality, the more time they are kept out of landfill. Washing your clothes is really important for the oceans too, with microfiber pollution becoming a huge environmental and potential health issue.
Patagonia’s recent research ‘The Cleanest Line‘ looked into synthetic fibers. From this they recommend the following to reduce microfiber release:
- Buy higher quality garments as they shed less in the wash
- Wash less often and invest in a front loader machine
- Use a filter bag to put your clothes in
- Make sure the machine is full
For help with symbols on the care label, see the image below and stick to it!
Be an active consumer
If you aren’t sure or are unhappy with the label and brand website’s transparency and details, be an active consumer and demand answers. As consumers, we can no longer rely on brands to make better choices. We must search for information and find out for ourselves. Checking out the label and understanding its information is just the start of a consumer’s investigation into the story behind the garment, but it’s one of the most important steps and shouldn’t be skipped over.
Mastered the subject of clothing labels? Congrats! To help you become an even smarter consumer, make sure to check out this guide: The 7 R’s to Reducing Your Fashion Footprint.