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Of the world’s industries that profit from worker exploitation, the fashion industry is notorious, in part because of the sharp contrast between how fashion is made and how it is marketed, including when it comes to the notions of sustainability and ethical consumption. There are more people working in exploitative conditions than ever before. Globally, the garment industry employs millions of people, with 65 million garment sector workers in Asia alone. The Clean Clothes Campaign estimates less than 1 percent of what you pay for a typical garment goes to the workers who made it.

Some working conditions are so exploitative they meet the definition of modern slavery – in which workers are trapped in situations they cannot leave due to coercion and threats. Modern slavery conditions in the apparel industry are being reported more frequently. However, to date, such conditions have largely hidden by the distance between the worker and the buyer. In other words, global supply chains have helped such exploitation to hide and thrive. 

As for information that has been brought to light, particularly as of late, it is worth asking whether consumers really care? We conducted in-depth interviews with 21 women who buy “fast,” “on-trend” clothing made and sold at very low costs – including from brands such as H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo – to find out how much they think about the conditions of the workers who make their clothes, and what effort they take to avoid slave-free clothing. What they told us highlights the inadequacy of seeking to eradicate exploitation in the fashion industry by relying on consumers to do the heavy lifting. Struggling to seek reliable information on ethical practices and “sustainability,” consumers are often overwhelmed when trying to engage in ethical consumerism. 

Out of sight, out of mind

The 21 participants in our research consisted of women between ages 18 and 55, from diverse backgrounds across Australia. We selected participants who were aware of exploitation in the fashion industry, but that had still bought fast fashion in the previous six months. This was not a survey but qualitative research involving in-depth interviews to understand the disconnect between awareness and action. 

Our key finding from such research was that clothing consumers’ physical and cultural distance from those who make the clothes makes it difficult to relate to their experience. Even if we have seen images of sweatshops, it is still difficult to comprehend what the working conditions are truly like. As Fiona,* a woman in her late 30s, put it: “I do not think people care [but] it is not in a nasty way. It is an out of sight, out of mind situation.”

This problem of geographic and cultural distance between garment workers and fashion shoppers highlights the paucity of solutions premised on driving change in the industry through consumer activism when it comes to ethical consumption. 

Who is responsible?

Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, for example, tackles the problem only by requiring large companies to report to a public register on their efforts to identify risks of modern slavery in their supply chains and what they are doing to eliminate these risks. While greater transparency is certainly a big step forward for the industry, the legislation still presumes that the threat of reputational damage is enough to get industry players to change their ways. The success of the legislation falls largely on the ability of activist organizations to sift through and publicize the performance of companies in an effort to encourage consumers to hold companies accountable.

All our interviewees told us they felt unfairly burdened with the responsibility to seek information on working conditions and ethical practices to hold retailers to account or to feel empowered to make the “correct” ethical choice. “It is too hard sometimes to actually track down the line of whether something’s made ethically,” said Zoe,* a woman in her early 20s. Given that many fashion brands and retailers – and not just those in the fast fashion space – are, themselves, ignorant about the extent and/or workings of their own globally-reaching and complex supply chains, it is asking a lot to expect the average consumer to unravel the truth and make ethical shopping choices.

Confusion + overwhelm = inaction

“We have to shop according to what we care about, what is in line with our values, family values, budget,” said Sarah,* who is in her early 40s. She said she copes with feeling overwhelmed by ignoring some issues and focusing on the ethical actions she knows can make a difference. “I’m doing so many other good things,” she said. “We cannot be perfect, and I can only do so much.” 

Other participants also talked about juggling considerations about environmental and social impacts. “It is made in Bangladesh, but it is 100% cotton, so, I do not know, is it ethical?” That is how Lauren,* a woman in her early 20s, put it. “It depends on what qualifies as ethical fashion […] and what is just marketing.”

Comparatively, participants felt their actions to mitigate environmental harm made a tangible difference. They could see the impact and felt rewarded and empowered to continue making positive change. This was not the case for modern slavery and worker rights more generally. Fashion is a lucrative market, with billions in profits made thanks to the work of the lowest paid workers in the world.

While there is no denying consumers wield a lot of power, and we should not absolve consumers of their part in creating demand for the cheapest clothes humanly – or inhumanly – possible, consumer choice, alone, is insufficient. We need a system where all our clothing choices are ethical, where we do not need to make a choice between what is right and what is affordable.

Gary Mortimer is a Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behavior at Queensland University of Technology. Alice Payne is an Associate Professor in Fashion at Queensland University of Technology. Tara Stringer is a PhD Candidate at Queensland University of Technology.  (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)