I grew up in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the sixties. There weren’t many clothing shops in Iceland in those days, and for kids practically none. Most of the kids in my street had clothes from Hagkaup, a warehouse shop down the road from my grandma’s. Grandma and I used to visit just to look, smell and be inspired by racks of rubber boots, raincoats and corduroy pants. We never bought anything.
In those days you didn’t randomly buy clothes; your mum only bought if you had outgrown an item and couldn’t get a hand me down. Most of the kids in my neighborhood had Hagkaup rubber boots and raincoats. They were simple and practical and there was a certain comfort in wearing the same as the other kids.
My situation was, though, different. My dad travelled abroad regularly for business which, in those days, in Iceland, was on par with investing in a Branson Galactic ticket into space. We enjoyed English confectionary for Christmas and beautiful clothes. My mum travelled with my dad; he didn’t like travelling on his own and she liked Marks & Spencer. We were not a religious family apart from always having to say our prayers after brushing our teeth but I could say that the admiration and praise that Marks & Spencer got in my family was close to worship. We didn’t go door knocking but we sure were close to heaven after shopping at M&S. When I say we, I mostly mean my mum and my grandma. I didn’t have full appreciation of the Oxford Street wonderland but I quite liked the beautiful clothes. I had an impressive wardrobe, even winter boots, real fancy ones with complicated laces and buckles, so much that I was always the last kid out of the school building at the end of the day. But that was a small price to pay. I remember riding home on the bus at the age of 8 and some of the mums would come up to me and admire my boots and my winter coat. My mums friend Haddi would have given an arm and a leg to be able to shop at M&S. Her favorite comment was: “Oh, Inga, she looks like the Kennedy children!” This was a compliment like no other. Nothing was regarded as sophisticated and elegant as the Kennedys.
Once I entered my teenage years mum stopped buying M&S clothes for me. Now other shops had entered the clothing market and Wrangler and Levis jeans were available at the “Vinnufatabúðin” (the workwear store). Wrangler’s had the edge I craved and lets face it, when you are 14 you want to wear exactly what your friends wear. Looking back I can see that Marks & Spencer was a good family choice. They sold quality clothes that lasted, they were made in England in acceptable working conditions; good craftsmanship for a fair pay.
Once an adult I moved to Australia and had child number two, three and then four and five. I started looking around for a retailer that would give my growing family quality at a reasonable price. Something that was practical, could take a lot of washing, looked good and wasn’t too expensive. I settled for Target. Living on a rural property and spending a lot of time outside I felt that the Target brand suited us; it was a sensible choice. When my extended family visited from Iceland they would, on my recommendation, shop at Target and fill up suitcases of kid’s clothes. Target became The Marks & Spencer of Australia; we even gave it a fancy French twist and the accent to go with it.
Then, with every year, almost without anyone noticing, the clothes became cheaper and some of us got more carefree with our buying. New retailers opened up and sold clothes that cost less than a bus fare. No wonder my teenagers got confused when a complete outfit at Cotton On cost less than a hot chocolate and a biscuit at our local café. Most of these garments didn’t survive much wear or washing so the waste was huge and the buying continued.
Then, on the 24th of April 2013, the Rana Plaza factory building outside Dhaka in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1129 people. They were factory workers in the garment industry. They made clothes in unsafe, unhygienic environments, in very poor working conditions, on extremely low wages.
I decided to take a closer look at my wardrobe. To my surprise, almost half of my clothes were made in China, the other half in Bangladesh. I only found a few items that were made in Australia, thank you Cue and Veronica Maine. I haven’t been to the shops lately; I won’t be going for a while. Actually, I´d like to think that I will be shopping differently in the future.
Last year both Kmart and Target signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This is an important commitment that two of our leading clothing manufactures have made and we must hope that others will follow. But this accord is only about safety for workers in Bangladesh. The use of sweatshop labour is systemic throughout Asia and most of the developing countries. How can we stop feeding this horrendous exploitation of garment workers in third world countries? How can we influence a positive change?
Our dollar is our vote. We can choose to support manufacturing in Australia and our Australian designers. Thinking before buying. Putting our dollar where everyone gets a fair go. A sustainable way to dress and undress.
By Inga Hamar Osborne
Inga is a mother of five, a gardener and a researcher/writer at Undress Runways. She lives in the hinterland off the Gold Coast.