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Human rights advocates call for Australia to clamp down on fast fashion category

Fast Fashion

Anti-slavery and environmental groups are calling for the Australian government to follow in the footsteps of the US and EU by introducing measures to restrict or ban fast fashion goods, warning that brands are using forced labour in an attempt to cut costs.

In a new ground-breaking move, France has passed a bill that will introduce a tax on fast fashion clothing and ban fast fashion advertising from the likes of Shein and Temu.

Each item of clothing will add a penalty of up to 10 euros (around $16) by 2030.

Appearing on Nine radio station 6PR, Professor Justine Nolan, director of the University of NSW’s Australian Human Rights Institute, said the rise of fast fashion is a worry.

“What we’re seeing here is real undercutting of global brands and Australian brands because of the way these goods are being produced. They’ve got a really low manufacturing base, low wages. Some of these goods are coming from the backs of slaves,” she said.

Commenting on Shein being accused in 2021 of underpaying its workers and forcing them to work for up to 16 hours per day, Nolan said this would technically be classified as forced labour and comes under Australia’s term of modern slavery.

“People are basically working in really abusive conditions, so it’s forced overtime, there’s sometimes non payment of wages or under minimum wage. It’s often very poor living and working conditions with people working side by side and living in the factory,” she added.

“Then there’s often physical or psychological threats that accompany that.”

When asked what Australia should do, considering the US and EU have banned imports suspected of using forced labour, Nolan said Australia’s Modern Slavery Act has been teaching large companies to be aware but hasn’t actually required them to change their behaviour or do anything if they identify forced labour.

“What it does is report on risks, so it’s a good step in that it’s raised awareness, but now Australia has to catch up with the rest of the world,” she said.

“These other regions have laws that ban the importation of these goods that have been made with forced labour.”

New research from the Australia Institute has revealed that Australians buy more clothes than any other country, averaging 56 new items of clothing per year, which is more than the US (53), the UK (33) and China (30).

It is believed that less than three percent of all clothes purchased are made in Australia, with the majority of items produced in China.

The research also reveals that Australians are big consumers of fast fashion, with the average value per item of clothing sitting at just AUD $13, which is far lower than other big fast fashion consumers such as the UK ($40), USA ($24), Japan ($30) and Brazil ($16).

Over recent years, Chinese retailers Shein and Temu have become increasingly popular in Australia, selling clothes at extremely low prices.

The two companies are projected to make sales of $2 billion this year alone.

According to research from Roy Morgan, each month Shein serves around 800,000 Australian customers while Temu reaches 1.26 million shoppers, including young parents, large households and retirees.

Nina Gbor, circular economy and waste director at the Australia Institute, said that low prices often equal modern slavery.

“One of the reasons it’s so cheap is because there’s a lot of modern slavery being used in making those clothes, where people are exploited and work 16 to 18 hour days,” she said.

Highlighting the impact fast fashion also has on the environment, Gbor said brands need to be held accountable.

“We need to drastically reduce waste at the source by penalising brands mass-producing incredibly cheap and poor quality clothing that is often worn just a handful of times or never sells and goes straight to the tip.

“The Federal Government has proposed a 4 cents per garment levy under its Seamless scheme to cut clothing waste and fund domestic recycling initiatives.

“This is a good start, but the levy is too low to change brand behaviour. It should be increased drastically to at least 50 cents per item. This, coupled with measures like a fast fashion tax, is needed to put the industry on notice.”

The Seamless scheme will be introduced from the 1st July and will encourage brands to voluntarily opt in.

Major Australian brands that have already opted in include Big W, David Jones, Rip Curl, Lorna Jane, R.M. Williams, Cotton On, The Iconic and Sussan Group.

It is hoped that if 60 percent of the clothing market joins the scheme, there will be a funding pool of $36 million per year to transform the industry.

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