The following piece was published 25 July 2013, SBS World News Australia Radio.
By Ildi Amon
An Australian clothing industry lobby group claims it's impossible for retailers to ensure that imported clothing hasn't been made in sweatshop conditions.
It's urging Australians to buy only Australian-made clothing, so they're not indirectly involved in exploitation of workers.
But retailers dispute the group's claim, and say the local manufacturing industry can't meet the demands of the local market.
Ildi Amon reports.
A group that advocates for ethical manufacturing in the clothing industry says Australian consumers face a decision between cheap clothes made in sweatshops overseas, and ethically-made clothes manufactured locally.
Almost 100 Australian businesses have signed up to Ethical Clothing Australia's voluntary accreditation system that helps Australian businesses comply with laws and ethical manufacturing practices.
Its national manager, Simon McRae, says buying from these businesses is the only way that Australians can ensure that the clothes they wear weren't made by exploited workers.
He says most well-known Australian brands that manufacture in Asia and Africa use sweatshops.
"That's just part of how the industry works. You don't have to look too hard to find workers being exploited in those countries. That's what it's all based around -- exploitation of labour -- that's how you keep the costs down. So anyone that tries to claim they're not sourcing from sweatshops is being completely dishonest."
Executive Director of Australian Retailers Association, Russell Zimmerman, says even those retailers that try to do the right thing can find it difficult to manage an overseas supply chain.
"Look, one of the problems in buying goods from overseas is you can go to a factory and you can be shown the factory overseas and you can be told that this is the factory where we're making it and the factory will be beautiful, clean, it'll be lovely. What that manufacturer doesn't tell you is he's got another couple of factories somewhere else and he doesn't show you those. So the only thing you can do is try to audit the supply chain the whole way through and I think that's up to industry associations along with other companies to try and gather the retailers together to get that happening."
Simon McRae from Ethical Clothing Australia blames the retailers for putting pressure on overseas factories to produce items as cheaply and as quickly as possible.
"It's the retailers who are looking at making bigger profits and more turnover by encouraging people to buy more clothing when they don't really need it and encouraging a throw-away mentality, that it doesn't really matter about the exploitation of those clothes. What we should be doing is saying to those retailers why aren't you paying those workers decent wages and conditions, why aren't you looking after the people in the supply chain."
In May, more than a thousand clothing industry workers died in the Rana Plaza building fire in the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka.
Most of those who died were trapped in the building, and the tragedy led to what's known as the Bangladeshi Fire and Safety Accord.
This agreement provides for independent inspections of clothing manufacturing buildings, and gives workers health and safety training.
Overseas aid group, Oxfam Australia, has led the call for more Australian companies to sign up to the legally-binding international accord.
Several Australian-based retailers have reportedly already agreed to do so.
Daisy Gardener, from Oxfam, says its research indicates almost 70 per cent of consumers would pay more for ethically made clothing.
"Well we have seen a real shock amongst the Australian community following the horrific collapse of the Rana Plaza building and we know that no company is too big to listen to its customers. Companies are quite sensitive to consumer sentiment and if enough consumers tell companies that they care about conditions then they will listen. We have seen a lot of people going onto Kmart and Target and Cotton On's Facebook pages telling them they care about conditions under which their clothes are made."
But Simon McRae, from Ethical Clothing Australia, says these codes of practice only go so far in reducing unethical practices in the garment industries of other countries.
He says it will require institutional change at a local level to make a real difference.
"One interesting thing about Bangladesh is the way they've responded to this, because there's been a movement amongst the workers and representative groups and trade unions to say well enough's enough. They're now pushing and there seems to be progress being made on things like the government looking at laws on how trade unions operate on the ground, there's this willingness of the retailers internationally to contribute to a fund to ensure that buildings are safe and there's other initiatives being pushes forward. So there seems to be movement on the ground in Bangladesh to recognise they need to change the way they do things, they need to provide more resources to ensure that buildings are checked properly, that health and safety is respected and that workers aren't intimidated."
Mr McRae says examples of exploitation can be found in Australia, too, particularly among home-workers.
He says Ethical Clothing Australia has helped to ensure good working conditions for home-workers by notifying authorities of questionable operations.
But he says clothes manufacturing in Australia is largely ethical, and he's now encouraging Australians to buy locally-made products.
Mr McRae says Australian-made items may not be the cheapest but are often better quality than foreign-made goods.
"What you've got to look at is the value you get out of your clothing and what you want out of it. If you want good clothing that's going to last and well-made then you buy Australian made stuff if you want stuff that's cheap and falls apart you buy it from a sweatshop in Asia. That's the reality, that's the choice you make. But the reality is what you need to understand is people are being exploited and their lives are being ruined and we should be trying to help those people. People as consumers need to recognise in general that you need to pay a proper price for the goods that you buy whether it's clothing or food or anything."
Russell Zimmerman from the Retailers Association says the call for Australians to buy only locally-made products is unrealistic.
"Look it'd be lovely to see manufacturing here in Australia but I think that would force the price of goods up and it would cost the consumer so much that I don't think it would be practically able to do. The other thing is part of the problem will be that if you took footwear as an example we would have lost a lot of the skills in Australia because over the last 20, 30 years those factories have closed down, people have obviously got older and those skills haven't been retaught. So it would be very, very hard to regear those factories up right at this point in time."
And Mr Zimmerman says while more needs to be done to ensure retailers adopt more ethical manufacturing standards, he's discouraging consumers from boycotting products made overseas.
"You don't want to take the livelihoods of these people away from them and then find that they've got no food, no wages, no anything."