25 Apr, 2018
Changing lives with the clothes we buy
Living Smart speaks with Alice Jones, co-founder of ethical, Fair Trade clothing company, Sinerji, on getting started in ethical fashion, the impacts of the fashion industry on people and the environment, and how to dig deeper to find out more about the clothes we buy.
What motivated you to start an ethical clothing company?
Mum was a pattern maker and costume designer so there was always lots of sewing in our house. I worked in fashion out of school, and eventually moved to a buying role where I started seeing the wholesale prices the company was paying for garments. The prices were so low that I started to question whether the people creating those products were making any money out of it.
In addition, everything was wrapped in plastic. Boxes and boxes of singlets would arrive, each individually wrapped, and nothing was being recycled. Coming from a waste conscious household, I couldn’t believe the waste and made the decision not to stay in fashion.
Lou [business co-owner, Louise Visser] was a jewellery designer who had started selling jewellery and a few well-cut items of clothing at the West End markets in Brissy. We met through a mutual friend and it turned out she was looking for someone to work with who was also passionate about ethics. She helped me to realise there was something that could be done from within the industry.
We set out to find incredible, beautiful natural fabric that lasts and started working with hand woven organic cotton dyed with natural dyes, sourced from a cooperative in northern Thailand.
My passion for changing the industry kicked off from there. I thought if no one else is doing this, it is either too hard or they are not trying. We had no idea how to run a business, just a burning desire to make a difference.
From the West End markets to a national brand, TED talk (One thread at a time) and beyond. How did the Sinerji story evolve?
People at the markets were loving our cuts of pants and blown away by the softness of our natural fabrics. Brisbane is a hot city but walk around the stores and most of the clothing for sale is polyester or nylon. In our hot climate, you really notice the difference wearing cotton or a cotton blend.
We developed a unique, fun style of clothing featuring well-shaped trousers, skirts and dresses with distinct hand-drawn illustrations and in 2011 opened a shop near Kunara on the Sunshine Coast.
We started to grow a following of loyal supporters. People were becoming tired of crappy clothing that didn’t last. You might buy a cheaper top but wash it three times and it becomes unwearable with twisted seams, pilling, zip breakages or tears.
It was important to ensure the relationship we had with the cooperative in Thailand was sustainable so we continued to source fabrics from them while connecting with a new group in India which was committed to working with us through the Fair Trade endorsement process. That has allowed us to introduce a beautiful blend of bamboo and organic cotton coloured with certified non-toxic dyes. The group also does their own printing so we were able to explore patterns, expanding the range and appealing to more people.
What are your concerns with major mainstream brands?
For me personally, it is what garment makers are paid. Fashion brands generate enormous profits and there is no excuse for not paying garment workers enough to live on.
Companies would not need to change the price on the rack. Garment workers could be paid the living wage (often 13 times more than the minimum wage) and still sell at the same price. Yes, it reduces their profit margin a fraction but that needs to be considered as part of the business model. There is nothing successful about exploiting someone to make money. No other industry gets away with it the way the fashion industry does.
Water pollution is a huge issue in the countries where clothing manufacture is a core industry such as China, Bangladesh and India. Most dyes used to colour fabrics for clothing are toxic and the dye is washed straight into rivers and waterways after use. In some places in China, it is possible to detect the trend colour of the coming season by the colour of the river.
In these countries, rivers are the lifeblood of the community where people bathe, wash clothes and draw water for cooking. Toxic pollution in the rivers as a result of clothing manufacturing is becoming a major health hazard. For us in Australia to be passionate about our pristine natural environment yet support an industry that does that in our neighbour’s backyard is completely unacceptable.
Also, many companies use poor quality fabrics that end up in landfill after a very short lifespan. Op shops are overloaded with stuff that doesn’t last and ends up in landfill. If a piece of clothing is made from a petroleum based fibre, it is not breaking down any time soon.
What are the non-negotiables for Sinerji?
Garment workers usually live in terrible circumstances with children sent back to a village to be cared for by their grandparents. It is common for 7-8 people to share a small room, work days are long and conditions can be poor. People who create our fabrics and sew our clothes are paid well, looked after and not in any danger from exposure to chemical dyes or dangerous circumstances. We pay a living wage according to world Fair Trade organisation standards which ensures the workers have enough income to buy food, health care, educate their children and still have some left.
In India, most of the better pad jobs go to men so there are lots of women in really low paid garment manufacturing jobs. Our partners in India are a beautiful brother and sister team, passionate about having plenty of women in their workforce, including in managerial roles.
Our dyes, fabrics and processes are non-toxic and don’t leave dye running into river behind a production facility or have people knee deep in dye baths that cause serious health problems.
Using organic cotton and bamboo that is sustainably processed means that we are greatly reducing the environmental impact of the fibres in the growing, production, and life cycle phases of the fabric, plus it lasts longer and is so much nicer to wear!
How can we increase our awareness of the stories behind the clothes we buy?
Check out the True Cost documentary which gives an overview of standard practices in fashion manufacturing or River Blue for the effect of the industry on our rivers and waterways. Both documentaries talk about the role of fashion marketing to manipulate consumers into buying more products.
The Fashion Revolution came out of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2014, killing 1138 people. This was a tragedy of such epic proportions that it made it to western media and reached a lot of people. For a week every April, The Fashion Revolution runs a campaign for people to take a photo of a favourite piece of clothing with the label showing, and post the image to social media, tagging the brand and adding the hash tag #whomademyclothes, Brands and producers are encouraged to respond with information about their workers and work practices to promote transparency.
Some brands are marketed to look fabulous and ethical but the reality is very different. Do your research and ask the brand directly. There is nothing more powerful than sending an email. When you’re in store, ask the people in the shop “do you know how this was made?”
The ABCs War on Waste is another good one. It’s suitable for families and has a great section on ethical fashion.
Greenpeace also has some great resources and a Detox Catwalk campaign that assesses major brands on their commitment to reducing toxic chemicals in manufacturing, and level of transparency.
With the problem so enormous, can we really make a difference through our own buying behaviour?
We’ve got the technology to do better in the fashion industry. There needs to be more regulation and that doesn’t come until consumers stop buying and start believing they can make a difference. Change comes from the purchaser…where we put our money really does make a difference.
It’s also thinking about what you need in your wardrobe, simplifying and planning purchases rather than relying on spontaneous hauls that don’t really deliver any value. Taking the time to look for something you really love, that has a story you connect with, that will last and doesn’t put people or the environment in danger is a real change to the way many people make fashion purchasing decisions.
Check out Alice’s top five tips for Getting started with ethical fashion.
The Sinerji store is located at 330 Mons Road, Forest Glen on the Sunshine Coast or buy online.