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Why we love local (sustainable too of course!)

Written by Sally, one half of Beginning Green. 

The following is not intended to be a biased, scare-mongering ‘spiel’ about buying Australian made, but instead a presentation of some relevant, but most importantly, objective information, with a couple of personal anecdotes. Your individual beliefs and circumstances are what should guide your purchasing decision.

In days gone, it was not unreasonable to expect the clothing on your back, so to speak, was manufactured locally. During the 1980’s, my mum owned a baby and children’s store in Melbourne. Just recently, when cleaning out my wardrobe, I sifted through my ‘for sentimental sake’ clothing items I have been hanging onto and found a Valentine brand spencer and an unopened packet of Red Robin socks both made in Australia, from my mother’s shop.  And you know what, as strange as this may seem to many, I felt a pang of sadness. WHY I hear you wonder.  No it was not because I could no longer fit into them! In part, I felt as a consumer, that I had lost a choice, in spite of our choices as consumers being greater than ever.

During my final year of my undergraduate degree (Consumer Science) I undertook a year-long research project with Dick Smith Foods, examining Australian consumers purchasing habits of Australian made and owned food. So I guess you could say that I have an existing affiliation to the cause, however, don’t get me wrong; I do not believe I am ethnocentric for the sake of it. Irrespective of the product, if it is manufactured in Australia, I have an expectation of sustainability, as this personally, rates higher in importance. However, if a product is ethically made in Australia, paying workers a fair wage, in fair working conditions (protection especially for outworkers), using organically grown natural fibres, in a workplace that takes its environmental and social responsibilities seriously, then this to me is a model for sustainability.  Though most importantly, there must be a market for the product or it is unsustainable.

From my understanding of the clothing and textiles manufacturing sector in Australia, it has been steadily contracting in the past three decades. Australia opened its markets to imported goods, in particular, clothing, in the late 1980’s. During this period, Australia also abolished tariffs and import quotas that served to protect these industries from overseas competition. While there are some brands or ranges within a label that remain made in Australia, for others, off shore manufacturing, in countries less developed, such as China, India and Bangladesh has become commonplace, for ‘brand survival’. This in theory creates employment opportunities in these countries, enabling some economic prosperity, and for the consumer, products are generally competitively priced due to the reduced costs of production. However, consumers in developed countries like Australia become even more detached from production practices in these countries, particularly the adverse impacts that can occur, such as low wages, poor working conditions and the use of child labour. It is unrealistic to expect our domestic manufacturing sector to compete, let alone survive, against economies with willing workforces of tens of millions of people, where the average wage in many instances is $1 per day! I am certainly not opposed to trade liberalisation and globalisation in general terms (in relation to the topic), but simply, some of the negative aspects that inevitably co-exist with the positive implications when manufacturing in developing countries. Limited occupational health and safety and environmental legislations are just two examples that are concerning to say the least. Furthermore, the use of ‘cheap’ labour can distort the true cost of production, and subsequently many consumers become attuned to paying almost ‘artificially’ low prices for products, and become unwilling to pay for a product that has been made with sustainability in mind, particularly if manufactured in a country like Australia, with higher production costs such as wages.

I am going to bring one example to your attention, taken from a recent report in CHOICE magazine (June 2012). According to this report, the regulations relating to chemical use in imported textiles, clothing and footwear (TCF) in Australia are inadequate, particularly when compared to any number of developed countries. While the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme monitors harmful substances (currently 50,000 chemical substances are listed and monitored in Australia compared with some 300,000 listed and monitored in the EU), there are currently no maximum limits prescribed for their use in Australia. Therefore, while these chemicals are not readily imported into Australia, these chemicals can be used on imported clothing items. According to a senior industry advisor from the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia:

 Products that are made in China for the Australian market could not even be sent back to China, as many of them would not meet the Chinese product safety standards but are accepted here.

This is of real concern today, given that 90% of TCF on our retail shelves are imported. Consumers are inadvertently, though their demand for more ‘cheap’ products on the shelves, are potentially jeopardising product safety, with their choice to buy imported products.

Let’s now shift our focus back to the local manufacturing sector. In spite of its decline, particularly of economies of scale, some small businesses have been able re-positioned or been created out of opportunity. And this is where Beginning Green comes into the story. Having purchased a pair of maternity jeans that at the time, even after numerous washes, smelt like sulfur, and then reading this article in CHOICE, I started to wonder about what other chemicals may be present in our clothing, particularly those that are odourless. My mother taught me, no actually ‘drummed into me’ to ALWAYS wash everything before wearing.  Drawing on my food background here, I know when minimum residual levels of pesticides and herbicides on fruit and vegetables are measured, the levels are based on a fruit or vegetable being washed. I am only speculating here, but is this the case with our clothing?

Via Beginning Green, my intent is to develop a retail platform for small businesses manufacturing sustainable, locally made baby products. We are in the process currently of creating this platform, and anticipate its launch on our website early in the new year, if not sooner. We believe this platform creates an additional retail channel for many small businesses, which in some cases, could be the difference between remaining economically viable or not. I appreciate that for many consumers buying local, sustainably made products may not be a priority, but for others, who simply may not be aware of the potentially adverse impacts of buying imported products, I am aiming to simply inform, in accordance with the adage “knowledge is power”.

I hope you enjoy trawling through our carefully selected range, and perhaps you may even be tempted to buy a thing or two! If you have any further questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me via email or phone (contact details listed under our contact tab).

Thank you for taking the time to read Why we love local.