19 Mar 2019

Kiwi fashion brands band together to create an ethical code of conduct

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:38 pm on 19 March 2019

Kate Sylvester is one of the many top Kiwi fashion designers who have already joined the collective Mindful Fashion New Zealand.

She tells Jesse Mulligan that NZ has a very small clothing industry with very unique challenges when it comes to ensuring ethical manufacture.

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Photo: Supplied / Kate Sylvester

  • Read Mindful Fashion New Zealand's open letter to fashion designers here.

Kate Sylvester says her eponymous brand has focused on sustainability for a long time – in the sense of working to create beautiful durable clothes in New Zealand and attempting to reduce production waste.

But when the Tearfund Ethical Fashion Guide approached her several years ago, Sylvester was disturbed to discover her company couldn't meet the criteria for ethical practice.

"It always puzzled me that there were fast-fashion global brands getting great marks [in the Tearfund Ethical Fashion Report] and the local brands often really struggled to do well … Then we were told they would be rating us this year and we started to look through the criteria it became apparent very quickly that with our NZ fashion industry – which is a quite unique, very very small industry – we have some quite unique challenges."

Proving that fabric has been ethically sourced isn't easy for a small company placing only small orders in China, Sylvester says.

Her team regularly visits manufacturers there but often "comes up against a brick wall" when enquiring about traceability. 

"When you're only ordering 100 metres of fabric here or there, trying to get the information of 'what farm did the cotton come from?' is incredibly hard.

"When you're ordering thousands and thousands for a multinational, you can threaten that you need traceability or you'll pull my orders."

Kate Sylvester and the designers from clothing label Ruby came up with the idea that to strengthen their individual accountability, NZ fashion companies would need to come together.

Working collectively to source fabric could give smaller companies more voice and more strength in the Chinese manufacturing environment, they decided.

Kate Sylvester shares her connection with art at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Kate Sylvester Photo: Sonia Sly

Some of the labels already who've already joined Mindful Fashion New Zealand include: Ruby, Kate Sylvester, Kowtow, Nature Baby, Juliette Hogan, NOM*d and Maggie Marilyn.

Clothing manufacture in New Zealand is quite unique, Sylvester says, and currently, there is no way of auditing the ethical practice of local makers and suppliers.

"New Zealand isn't about big factories. We've got one guy who does our cutting, he sends it off to the fusing guys… our biggest sewing factory has six machinists in it.

"You've got all these tiny little players and existing intern audits are all geared for these giant factories of hundreds of people."

Sylvester has a message for New Zealanders tempted by super-cheap 'fast fashion':

"Just stop and think before you buy that full-price three-dollar t-shirt. Stop and think about that and invest in clothes that are going to ask, ideally, for a lifetime.

"Was that [cotton] farmer fairly paid? Were the people that processed that cotton into yarn fairly paid? Were the people that wove that yarn into fabric fairly made? Were the makers that sewed it fairly paid? Were the people that designed it and printed it fairly paid? You then freight that garment all the way around the world. Then are you paying your warehouse staff fairly? Are you paying your retail staff fairly?"

Mindful Fashion New Zealand is in the process of designing a code of conduct and a new auditing system for the clothing industry.

  • Kate Sylvester talks to RNZ's Sonia Sly about career inspiration and making mistakes here.

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