Smartypants – Ethical Fashion with Naomi!

Introducing Naomi van den Broek!

“During the day I work full time helping not for profits with their fundraising objectives. In my other life, I’ve been a performer in NZ and overseas for 20 years. I endeavour to be a good human and live in a sustainable, environmentally sensitive way. I love to eat, talk, read, sing, ride my bike, and create things. I live with my husband who is a composer and UC lecturer, 2 cats named Douglas and Rita, and 2 chickens called Betty White and Yolko Ono.”

You can find more from Naomi on her blog and her website.


Ethical fashion is a multi-faceted issue that can be so overwhelming to make informed choices about. It can lead to ‘what the hell’ syndrome – a type of inertia that is a result of, “Well, I can’t find bras that aren’t made in China, so what the hell, there’s no point worrying about where my shoes were made.” Coupled with the fact that shopping ethically can often result in more expensive purchases, it’s easy to want to just ostrich out this whole fashion trip.

Just some of the considerations when trying to make ethical choices when shopping are: Where and how was the fabric made? Was it sustainably made? Is it a sustainable fabric choice? How were the people treated who made the fabrics? How was it shipped and how far?

Most of us have some idea of the issues surrounding modern manufacture. Was this clothing made in a sweatshop? Did the workers who made it earn a living wage? Are they working reasonable hours and can they take adequate breaks? Can they go to the toilet when they need to? How old are they? Are the buildings they work in safe and well ventilated?

Then theres how the brands in-country operations are run at our end of the chain. How are their staff both in retail, and in the less visible areas like packing and distribution, treated?

Once you’ve covered off all of those areas, then you can start asking yourself questions like: How far has this garment travelled to get to me? Do I support the way this brand markets and who they market to?

Now you can see where the ‘what the hell’ syndrome can start to really come into play. I mean if everyone isn’t thinking this hard, why should you? What difference can your choices possibly make?

Well, I want to believe that people are good and that when faced with achievable decisions and choices that they will choose to do what they can. So I wanted to make a list of some choices, ranging from very simple to more complex, that we can make when shopping for clothes.

Buy Less
Fashion has gone through an incredible transformation in the last 50 or so years. Purchasing clothing from a store was once the domain of only the very well off, or was at least limited to very special occasions. People were far more inclined to make their own, and to rely on clothing travelling through a family – if not for generations, then at least through a number of folk in the same generation.

Fast forward to the present: Most people would now purchase most if not all of their clothes brand new from a store. We have been increasingly trained by marketers that we need to be wearing new not only every year, but every season. Some large brands pride themselves on having new clothes coming into their stores every week, sometimes every day.

The first step to dressing ethically is not to believe the sell. I can guarantee you that not only will your friends and loved ones not publically shun you if you are wearing last year’s jeans, many of them may not even notice.

You can make a difference to ‘fast fashion’ by just not buying as much or as often as you are told to. In addition, I suggest buying the best quality you can afford. Fast fashion is designed to have a short life span to encourage you to buy more.

Buy less, and buy better.

Make Do and Mend
This sort of ties into the Buy Less model: It alarms me that for a lot of people it’s just easier (and lets face it – it’s so damn cheap) to throw something away when it rips or stains, and just get a new one. Everyone is capable of sewing on a button, mending a small tear, and becoming a pro stain remover. You can find all of the info you need online. YouTube will teach you step by step how to thread a needle!

If you subscribe to the buy less, buy better model, then it’s worth mending your clothes and making them last longer.

Buy Second Hand
Some people get grossed out by the thought of wearing someone else’s clothing, but I encourage you to push past that feeling and embrace the benefits of second hand clothing. (NB I haven’t managed to get past the ick factor of second hand underwear yet, so no pressure – do what you can!)

New Zealand is treasure trove of small op-shops, staffed by volunteers where you can often pick up a beautiful hand knitted jersey for around $6! Then there are the super stores like Save Mart that can be found in a lot of New Zealand cities. Prices here can be a bit higher, but there is a lot of selection and some curating has been done for you already.

The next step up is recycled fashion or nearly new stores. A lot of times these shops deal with quality clothing, often well known labels. You can pick up barely worn, current season’s clothes for around half the price of retail. These are usually operated by an individual who does a lot of work sorting and carefully choosing garments based on a good knowledge of their customer base. So you get the added bonus of supporting local business, too.

For the more adventurous, you can try browsing real vintage stores which specialise in fashion from the past. Usually pre 1970s, although many now stock 80s and 90s finds too – particularly when those looks were referencing an earlier decade. You will pay more at these stores, but get something very special and one of a kind. Check buttons, fastenings and high wear areas like underarms and crotches before purchasing!

If geography is an issue, Trade Me is an absolute haven of items that could be found in any of the types of stores above. You do have to chance it as there’s no try on and things can look different on screen, but worst case scenario you can always on-sell if it’s not what you wanted.

The best part of all this is that this clothing already exists! You’re not adding to the demand for new clothes.

Buy New Zealand Made – aka Avoid the Mall
There are some great New Zealand labels that are still manufacturing locally or can have a really great conversation with you about their supply chain. Spoiler alert: these aren’t usually chain stores you find at the mall.

You can find good underpants, singlets, socks, hosiery, basics, tailored clothing and even shoes that are made in New Zealand using ethically sourced materials. I tell you, putting on your undies in the morning will never feel so good when you know that no child’s tears are embedded in the fabric.

Ask questions and research
I make a point of asking whenever I’m in a store what they can tell me about where and how their garments are manufactured. I firmly believe that if every second shopper started asking these questions, big brands would start to care more about what answers they were giving.

The best ever experience I had with this was when I was shopping at a local boutique in Melbourne. I noticed that all their clothes proudly stated “Designed in Melbourne” and in the small print “Made in China”.

I asked the shop assistant if she could tell me about the conditions the garments were manufactured under, and she said, “Sure thing.” She then popped out the back of the shop and brought out the photo album of their factory in China, which was a family outfit. She proudly told me the owner visited the factory every second month, she knew all the workers by name, and considered them to be part of the family of their brand. It was so heart-warming!

A lot of times, in store staff can’t answer these questions – which I think is sad. So let your fingers do the talking and send an email and ask. This creates a valuable resource for the brand too. It’s tangible evidence that people give a crap.

Find a Tailor or Seamstress
Now we’re getting to the serious end of the spectrum. There are wonderful people who will make you clothes that are made to fit your body, out of fabric you chose yourself. Mind = blown!

Aside from the joy of wearing one-of-a-kind, made to measure clothes, you also get the bonus of knowing you’re supporting someone’s business, creating less demand for fast fashion, and that you wont turn up anywhere wearing the same outfit as someone else.

Some things to consider when pursuing this option, is that the textile industry isn’t a great place. If and when you can, check country of origin labelling for fabrics, and of course, buy second hand!

Learn to Sew
Most of us New Zealanders had some quality time with a sewing machine in our education at some point, even if it was just to make a pillowcase. There are very few people who would be a danger to themselves or the community behind a basic sewing machine.

Even if you just learn a few basics so you can mend or up-cycle your op-shop finds, sewing is a great skill to have. You can find classes in most cities where you can learn or re-learn to sew, or you can use YouTube to teach you everything from threading a machine to inserting an invisible zip. And the good news is a lot of our mums and grans still have a really great quality sewing machine hiding in a cupboard somewhere. They might even show you how to use it if you ask nicely.

While it may seem difficult to imagine having the time to sew, I can promise you that it is one of the most rewarding ways to invest your spare time. I should warn you though: once you get the bug, it’s very hard to find a cure!


Some links if you want to know more:
John Oliver on ethical fashion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdLf4fihP78

Article about ethical shopping and how difficult it is to trust supply chains: http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/the-myth-of-the-ethical-shopper/

Australian Fashion Report – conducted by Baptist World Aid which investigates major ‘High Street’ brands that sell in Australia from end to end of their business
http://www.baptistworldaid.org.au/assets/Be-Fair-Section/FashionReport.pdf

A documentary series about human slavery today that has a lot about the way the fashion industry feeds this problem
http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/slaverya21stcenturyevil/

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