The P in EMPATHY: People

The P in EMPATHY: People

In this new article series, we wanted to dive right into our current rationale around each of our EMPATHY values to provide you with more transparency but also helpful information that you can take with you on your next purchase.

This is also a great exercise for Ethi as we’ll be able to set a baseline to continue to improve our knowledge and criteria for each value as we grow. As with sustainable fashion in general, we are a work-in-progress so any feedback will really help!



This week we look at our People value, which we define as brands that produce their products without the exploitation of workers in any stage of production.

Like our previous article, we’re going to highlight some issues caused by the fashion industry that make this an important area for our brands to address:

The problem with fashion
  • 1-in-6 people work in the global fashion industry with the majority being women working below the living wage (<$3/day), making it the most labour depended industry on earth (Morgan & Ross, 2015)
  • Fairtrade Foundation estimates that as many as 100 million households are directly engaged in cotton production and that 300 million people work in the cotton sector in total
  • The Global Slavery Index estimates that 36 million people are living in modern slavery today, many of who are working in the supply chains of Western brands, most from the world’s emerging (and textile/garment producing economies) such as China, India, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, Colombia, Vietnam, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
  • In Guangdong, China, young women face 150 hours of overtime each month, 60% have no contract, 90% no access to social insurance.
  • The Behind the Barcode report (April 2015) found that just 12% of 219 popular fashion brands surveyed could demonstrate any action at all towards paying wages above the legal minimum and, even then, only for part of their supply chain.
  • 250,000 Indian cotton farmers have committed suicide over the last 15 years

The social impact is significant, just that we in the West do not really see what happens behind the scenes of what happens before you purchase that piece. The video below gives you a snapshot of what Cambodian women garment workers face day-to-day:

How does this affect YOU?
  • Poorer quality clothing means you get fewer wears out of the garment. I mean, imagine if you were underpaid, subject to harassment, regularly work overtime without penalty rates - could you do your best work under these conditions?
  • In a similar vein to the first point, your clothes are likely to contain harmful chemicals that are in direct contact with your skin.
  • Supporting ethical fashion brands is one of the easiest ways to support a fair trade economy, particularly for exploited women who are the most vulnerable to being forced to work in the garment making industry.
How fashion can help solve the problem

Dramatically lift people out of poverty

Many third-world countries such as Haiti, Cambodia, and Bangladesh rely heavily on the fashion industry for their trade, income, and employment. The first step of providing formal wages to unskilled workers is already a step forward, but by providing these workers above-living wages and proper working conditions, millions of people’s living standards are dramatically lifted.

Sustainability can save lives

250,000 Indian cotton farmers have committed suicide over the past 15 years due to being pulled into a vicious cycle of pesticide over-dependence farming non-organic cotton. If the industry were to focus much more on organic cotton farming, many of these farmers lives would be spared (not to mention avoid direct exposure to cancerous chemicals).

Fly the diversity flag

Woman make up 68% of the fashion industry, and in countries such as Bangladesh, the number is as high as 90% (World Economic Forum). With such a large concentration of women in the industry, there is an opportunity to develop this workforce into more formalised, higher skill operations that are usually reserved for men. Women in lower skilled roles with a limited ceiling is reflected in the boardroom - only 7 of the 50 major fashion brands are run by women (World Economic Forum).  

What does it mean for a brand to qualify for our ‘People’ value?

There are a number of certifications out there that aim to ensure and improve on fair trade practices with the largest being the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO). Brands that are WFTO certified or work with WFTO certified factories or manufacturers qualify for our People value.  

We also like any brands that have their clothing locally made and produced in countries with stringent labour laws such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Not only does this promote local economies, it also means that the person behind your clothes has made it in a good environment.

Brands that are also highly transparent with whom they employ to make their garments especially traditional artisans are also highly desirable and align well with the People value. There are also brands that actively seek to empower those disadvantaged such as women garment workers in third world countries that can qualify for the People value.

Arc & Bow - Brand example at Ethi

Arc & Bow are a New Zealand-based fashion label that is 100% ethical and organic in terms of manufacturing and production. They chose a certified fair trade factory in Jaipur, India that ensures that their workers work under the following conditions:

  • No discrimination
  • No forced labour
  • Payment of a living wage, all staff are full-time salaried employees,
  • On time payments to staff and suppliers
  • Clean and safe working conditions
  • No excessive working hours
  • No forced overtime
  • No child labour
  • Pension funds for all staff

Their factory also plays a pivotal role in the development of women in employment, continually adding more roles within their company specifically designed for women, developing their skills through specialised training programmes.

You can find Arc & Bow pieces here on Ethi. 

So, what can we do?
  1. Do your research! Look for brands that are or work with fair-trade producers. Buy from local designers or local artisans that handcraft their clothes.
  2. Buy clothing from organic fabrics - workers are much less likely to be exposed to pesticides and harmful chemicals.
  3. If you see prices that are ‘too good to be true’, question why this is - it may be likely that someone somewhere has paid the price so that you can get it cheap.
  4. Treat your clothing as investments rather than disposables. Buy quality rather than quantity, and you will be creating demand for better-produced clothes.
  5. Head onto our People values products page on Ethi to browse through clothing that has been made the right way by people treated fairly. 

A Final Note: 

Ultimately, we want to encourage people to buy sustainable because of its quality, its aesthetics, accessibility, and affordability - not because they have been guilt-tripped toward buying sustainably. We honestly hope that the words “sustainable” or “ethical” will be dropped in the future because that will be the new norm and fashion will simply be “fashion”.


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