Did a child make your child’s clothes?

Last time on Enrichmentality, we examined the equation ethical = expensive, and found that, in most cases, we can’t trust this assumption. Sometimes, clothing is cheap and nasty. But it can be expensive and nasty, too. In fact, some of the most expensive brands had the very worst environmental and social records according to the Ethical Fashion Report. But I came across something important when I was analysing the data included in the report. And that was the fact that most of the brands surveyed that sold exclusively or primarily children’s clothing scored abysmally.

The report card: F

Out of the five companies identified in this category, FOUR scored an F overall, and an F in each of the worker and environment categories. Despite retailing clothing for children, the Ethical Fashion Report states these companies (The Baby Factory, T&T Fashions, Baby City and Pavement United) show no evidence of working with credible civil society organisations to redress forced and child labour. It’s hard to imagine a more unfortunate brand name for a company that fails on this measure than ‘The Baby Factory’.

This is particularly alarming, given new parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles might assume that by shopping at a specialist store, they are making a more ethical or sustainable choice. Yet according to this report, shopping at ‘big box’ retailers like Kmart or Target (with overall scores of B+ or B) or even Aldi (B-) might be preferable. While far from perfect, these companies show a ‘partial’ commitment to addressing forced and child labour.

Too cool for school

The only brand with a decent score in this category was Nature Baby, with an A- overall, an A+ in environment, and a B- for worker empowerment. For baby and young children’s clothing, they appear to be the best bet, and for older children, one of the more ethical retailers that sells both adults’ and children’s clothing is better. (Liminal sell t-shirts for kids aged 3-12, Etiko sell kids’ shirts and shoes, Kathmandu have an enormous range of kids’ clothing, footwear and accessories, and for cold weather gear there’s Icebreaker). All of these companies have at least an A rating overall. Compare that to Pavement United and T&T, who scored Fs.

Children’s clothing represents a special case for a number of reasons.

Kids grow out of their clothes quickly

First of all, children grow quickly. After a few months’ wear (if you’re lucky!), babies grow out of their clothing.

Low second hand value

Secondly, when it comes to babies in particular, second hand children’s clothing, especially from more affordable brands, tend to have very limited value. Consider wedding dresses. Most brides prefer to have something brand new off the rack, if not something created or tailored to their personal preferences. Likewise, most new parents want to pick out some lovely new clothes for their lovely newborn if they can at all afford it – not dress them in hand-me-downs from the get-go. So most second-hand baby or young children’s clothing is given away or swapped rather than retaining their value and being resold. Just like even designer wedding dresses.

Kids are messy!

Third, children are messy. Babies spit up on their clothes constantly, young kids (and older ones) love playing in mud and climbing on things and drawing on stuff. This contributes to the low-value of most children’s clothing when sold secondhand. Even if they aren’t torn or stained, children’s clothing is likely to have been washed many more times than an adult’s set of clothes worn for the same period would have. But it also means children need more clothes than adults. While most of us adults can get through a day with just one set of clothes – or maybe two if we have to go to work or dress up to go out – babies and kids may wear many times this.

Many clothes are given as gifts

Fourth, children and babies especially tend to receive clothes as gifts. Particularly when it comes to very young children, yet to develop interests of their own, clothes are often the go-to gift option. Parents, understandably, usually wish to choose at least some clothes for their baby themselves, leading to a mountain of clothes (and a mountain of laundry!) beyond even what might be necessary given the messy factor mentioned above.

Shopping for children’s clothing can be hit-and-miss

Fifth, when it comes to older children, especially kids conscious of peer pressure or struggling to find their own identity, buying clothes for them can be hit-and-miss. They may (like me!) hate clothes shopping and refuse to go, or may even say they like something, have you buy it, and then change their mind. Growing up, I knew many kids whose drawers were full of clothes their parents had purchased yet they had never worn. (Don’t be too quick to judge though: the average adult woman owns around 20 pairs of shoes, but only wears five of them regularly. And almost 90% of women own at least one pair they have never worn).

Parents care most about their own kids

Finally, the number one priority of most parents is, understandably, their own kids. While the rest of us may look to ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ labels on our clothing to try and assuage some of the guilt we might feel spending on ourselves, parents and grandparents and aunties and uncles don’t need to feel guilty splurging on children – buying stuff for your kids is seen as an inherently selfless act. There’s no need to look for additional ‘feel good’ factors’, which may explain why some of the major children’s clothing retailers haven’t bothered to greenwash or socially wash their clothing.

Besides, parents are busy people – if something fits, your kid agrees to wear it, and you can afford it, that’s good enough! I’m a qualified researcher with ample time on my hands, and still, I’ve spent two full work days looking over this data so far. How a parent with kids to look after is meant to untangle the ethical and environmental impact of their clothing purchases is beyond me.

Quantity or quality?

These factors combined mean it is unsurprising that parents (and others) might take a quantity-over-quality approach when it comes to children’s clothing, treating it as disposable and opting for the cheapest choices.

Yet ethical children’s clothing doesn’t have to be as expensive as you might think.

Consider these three examples. Which group of clothing do you think would be the most expensive? The least? The most ethical? The least? Can you tell just by looking at them?

The most expensive and most ethical group here is the middle one, from Nature Baby, coming in at just over $550. Did you pick it?

Chalk and cheese

What may surprise you though, is that the other two groups differ a lot in both price and ethical ranking – and not how we might expect.

The group on the left is from Kmart, a big retailer which, while far from perfect, and still having many problems has a comparatively decent ethical track record – a B+. The total for this group comes to less than a tenth of the cost of the middle group. In fact, you can get all of this for under $50.

The group on the right is from the Baby Factory, the specialist retailer which received an F on the report. And yet, the total price is more than double what the same haul would cost at Kmart – over $125.

What about style and quality?

To see whether style really must suffer when spending less and more ethically, I set myself a challenge:

Could I put together a complete outfit for less than the cost of a single key item from one of the luxury brands?

For this experiment, I decided to use Little Trelise, one of the most expensive brands on this list, but which nonetheless received an overall F score, and Kmart, the best-performing of the ‘big box’ brands (with a score of B+). While it still has a very long way to go, Kmart is a member of the ‘Action, Collaboration, Transformation’ agreement that aims to address the issue of a living wage. It is also a signatory to the Bangladesh Accord, which has been working to improve safety following the horrific Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013. By contrast, Little Trelise, and its parent company, Trelise Cooper, are not members of either, and in fact refused to cooperate with the Fashion Report’s audit.

Outfit #1

For the first outfit, I looked at Little Trelise’s Woolly Mammoth coat. Although the colour is slightly different, Kmart has a strikingly similar coat available for just $17, compared to Little Trelise’s $215. That’s a saving of $198, which leaves stacks of money left over to spend on a similar dress and headband. All told, a comparable outfit at Kmart would cost just $35, leaving you with $180 remaining. At Little Trelise, you’d only get the coat, with no money left over.

Outfit #2

For the second outfit, I took a cheaper item, the $105 Calico Cat dress. You can find similar dresses at Kmart for just $8. Meaning that there’s still a lot left over to pick up some fuzzy cat ears, a denim jacket, tights, and shoes to complete the ensemble. Even after buying all of these items, we’ve still spent less than half the cost of the Little Trelise dress. For an outfit that would be virtually indistinguishable, you wind up with $57 left over. Even better, you get a second pair of tights and a set of kitty cat hair clips included for no extra charge.

Outfit #3

Finally, for the third outfit I looked at a sub-hundred dollar item: a pair of $83 jeans. Similar pants can be found at Kmart for less than a tenth of the price at $7, leaving plenty of leeway to buy a headband (or two!) dress, and cute shoes, and still spend less than half the total price ($36, giving you $47 in change).

Clearly, the availability of such similar items at stores like Kmart means that luxury brands cannot claim to have a monopoly on ‘style’. And when they perform so terribly on measures like environmental management and worker’s rights – including whether they actively seek to avoid child labour and slavery – it is difficult to rationalise spending big bucks on these brands.

If you bought these three key items at Little Trelise, it would cost you $403. At Kmart, it would cost just $32. A saving of $371.

It’s only a saving if you’re saving it

But the trick is to actually save this money. If you’re using the affordability of Kmart’s children’s clothing to buy five or even ten times more clothes than your kids really need, you’re not actually saving money, or the environment. The vast majority of clothes wind up in landfill, and contribute to devastating environmental consequences. And unless the money you save goes into your mortgage or your savings account or your investments, instead of back into the cash register, it’s not really saved at all.

Likewise, something is only a bargain if you need it and would have bought it otherwise. While Kmart and other retailers’ selling of things in bulk packs (like the head bands or tights above) can result in cheaper per-item costs, their impact on the environment – and on our wallets — is often questionable at best. Before buying something in bulk, consider whether you really need two. A headband for $2 is more expensive than getting 2 for $3 ($1.50 each). But if your child doesn’t have two heads, and you’re not planning on giving away the other, you’ve really just wasted a dollar – and a whole heap of effort and resources.

What else could your money do?

On the other hand, if you have enough money already, that’s no reason to pour more money into the pockets of companies like Little Trelise, simply because you can afford it. Think of what that $371 could do in the hands of a charity. Even if you donate just a portion of this saving, you could make a big impact. For example, for just $111 a year, you can adopt a rat in Cambodia (a country that produces many clothes and suffers one of the highest prevalences of modern slavery) that will help sniff out land mines, allowing fields to be cleared so that children can walk to school safely, play, and their parents can once again make a living from the land or run their own businesses. (And you’ll still have over $200 left to save or spend on whatever you want!)

What more valuable lesson could your money be teaching your children?

There is hope

None of this post should be read as an endorsement of any particular retailer. I’m certainly not here to tell you to go spend up big at Kmart and pat yourself on the back for doing so. I have only provided links to the stores of those retailers that scored A+ in the Ethical Fashion Report. Why? I’m not trying to censor or direct you towards any particular place, but those companies trying to do the right thing deserve recognition – both from us human beings, and my linking to them presumably helps their search engine optimization. (I don’t want to give any Google brownie points to those companies that aren’t doing the right thing by their workers.)

I cannot personally vouch for any of the companies linked to in this article, or the last, however. Not only have I not had the access and oversight to perform the sorts of checks I am very grateful the Ethical Fashion Report authors have, but in most cases, completing this analysis was the first time I heard about any of them. As such, I haven’t purchased any of their products to date, and cannot comment on their quality or style. Nevertheless, I hope this analysis has given you hope that ethical fashion can be affordable, and that retailers can take action when we make it in their interests to do so.

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