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Consumer expectations drive change to sustainable business

Michelle discusses social movement campaigns in the fashion industry, and how influences can develop a need for sustainable products and services.
Hi, I’m Michele O’Neil. I’m the national security of the Textile Clothing & Footwear Union of Australia and I’m also a committee member of Ethical Clothing Australia.
Ethical Clothing Australia is a joint union industry initiative. It’s an accreditation scheme for companies. It accredits their supply chain to make sure that workers at every step of the supply chain are being treated fairly and receive their legal minimum conditions here in Australia. In Australia today, we still find workers that are exploited. There has been improvement, but there are workers that are working at sweatshops, working in small factories, and working at home in their garages and lounge rooms, who aren’t receiving Australian legal minimum conditions. That’s why it’s so important that we actually have transparent supply chains and that the rights and conditions of workers are both protected by law, but then there’s verification that they’re receiving them.
I think the change in consumers’ expectations and desires has been driven by the fact that we’re a smaller world and that the exposure of things like Rana Palaza, where we saw more than 1,100 workers killed simply sitting behind sewing machines, was such a wake up call to many, many consumers who hadn’t thought that much about what was going on in the making of the clothes. The benefits of taking on an ethical approach for a business owner means that they can actually sleep easily at night because they will have the confidence of knowing that wherever their product is being made, workers are treated ethically. That their lives are being put at risk.
That they can, with confidence, say to consumers, this is the product we’re making. And have the consumers make the choice, knowing that it’s ethically made, as well as a beautiful product and one they might choose over another. So it makes sense for business not only because it’s morally right, but also because it’s good business sense. Some brands and manufacturers, unfortunately, are still driven only by trying to find the cheapest place on earth to make their clothes and sell as many of them as possible. Whereas others have realised that this is the great challenge for this industry, to clean it up.
And given that the value of businesses now is so driven by the value and the reputation of their brand, it will fail as a business if they take the responsibility for their supply chain. This is important to me, personally, because I’ve seen the effect of what happens to workers whose conditions and rights are not respected. And if you’ve seen that– if you’ve seen child labour, if you’ve seen workers lives being damaged, and their families and communities destroyed, then this becomes a driving passion.

Social movement campaigns around ethical fashion are a recognised driver of change. Campaigns seek to inform fashion consumers about where their clothes and shoes come from, and to lobby companies to change their sourcing and labour practices. They call on business to treat workers fairly, to prevent the use of toxic chemicals, and avoid waste and pollution affecting the environment.

Consider the ‘change your shoes’ campaign that exposes consumers to important triggers so they know the story behind the products they buy. Campaigns such as this can eventually influence market trends Reflect on how important campaigns such as this are in getting fashion industry businesses to develop sustainable practices.

There are many influences that can determine how a business develops a sustainable product or service for consumers. Consumer expectations are changing. Increasingly they are concerned about not only how good their clothes and shoes look, but also who made them. Some are choosing to buy from local boutique producers, others want to buy their favourite brand. Consumers want business to tell them the story behind the fashion they wear; it is not enough just to look good, they want the backstory on their fashion.

Watch the ‘Change your shoes’ campaign video. Think about what impact this might have on consumers and brands.

Tell us in the comments why you think a consumer would make a change to their behaviour after exposure to a civil society campaign.

  • Belief that the change will benefit the broader society
  • It matches their beliefs and ideals
  • The new behaviour is innovative and inspiring
  • They see the social justice and feel they want to be part of it
  • They will expect more from shoe brands about ethical standards
  • It is unlikely to change their buying behaviour
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