The Ethics of a Work Wardrobe

Written by Lynette Dong

Edited by Georgia Smith

Where do your clothes really come from? In this article Lynette Dong explores the hidden cost of your corporate wardrobe. 


Deadly Fashion

Whether you’re just starting to build a work wardrobe, or looking for something new to add to your existing options, there’s one thing we can agree on — it comes at a cost. Not only do new purchases burden your credit card, but they also come with social, economic and environmental costs. As you walk into work sporting a new shirt, or breaking in a new pair of shoes, spare a thought for those who made your clothes and what their workplace looks like.  How many litres of water gushed through the cotton factory to process seed cotton into one t-shirt? How old was the child worker who made your clothes, and when did they give up going to school in order to work for a living? And even then, does she (for in most cases, the workers are young women) earn enough to cover their cost of living?

According to CHOICE, 92 per cent of the clothes we buy in Australia are imported from international suppliers, primarily from China, Bangladesh, India and Italy. The obvious reason for offshore production is cheaper production costs, which means cheaper products for us in the first world. The fact that our clothes are made overseas isn’t in itself the problem; but it does make tracing the source of our clothes nearly impossible. When clothing labels source supplies through offshore factories, it’s common for those factories to further outsource parts of the manufacturing process. The nature of mass-produced fashion means that one piece of clothing often passes through many underpaid and overworked hands in the supply chain, who are vulnerable to exploitation. For example, CHOICE reports that the average production cost of an imported piece of clothing is $4.06. Taking away the cost of the raw materials and equipment involved, we can probably be confident the worker is not being paid a reasonable living wage.

The issue is that many of our favourite brands, are reluctant to be accountable for the ethics of their supply chain (see Oxfam report on the matter). Many brands are starting to publish their company policies and commitments to sustainable and ethical fashion, but research shows there is hardly any evidence to affirm what impact, if any, these ‘policies’ are actually having on offshore workers.

There is, however, a silver lining — out of the devastating Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, in which 1134 Bangladeshi workers died, global awareness and consumer interest in the ethics of the fashion industry has risen. The campaigning of global organisations such as Fashion Revolution and high-profile celebrities such as Emma Watson (who dedicated an Instagram account to detailing her sustainable fashion choices - see @the_press_tour) is driving a shift in shoppers to choose labels that care about more than the bottom line.


How can you make more ethical choices?

If it seems all a bit too much to figure out exactly how well a worker is paid for making each item in your wardrobe, or the carbon footprint of your clothes, do not fret. Organisations such as Ethical Clothing Australia and the handy Good On You app make it easier for consumers to make ethically conscious choices about what we wear to work (besides the styling details, of course). Want to be more ethical about your wardrobe choices? We have a few suggestions for you:

1. Buy less – and spend more on high quality and classic pieces that are cut to last beyond the current season’s trends. It doesn’t mean you have to shun new trends all together, but choose wisely and pick one or two new styles each season to pair with your wardrobe staples. Things to look out for when scanning for quality: high percentage of natural fibres (eg. cotton, wool, silk, linen), loose threads, uneven stitching, printed patterns not lining up at the seams, the degree of stretch in a fabric, and whether a jacket or dress is lined. Keep in mind though, that while natural fibres are often higher in quality, materials like wool and silk are not easy to clean, so if you don’t want to be handwashing or steaming your silk shirts every weekend, you can also opt for comfortable synthetics like lyocell (tencel) and viscose.

Tip #1: Buying an ‘investment’ piece is a good idea, but remember that it’s only an investment if it lasts well. Make sure to maintain it with less frequent washing (handwash or dryclean) and proper storage (to protect your clothes from moth infestation).

Tip #2: If you’re just starting to build up a corporate wardrobe, check out our guides to deluxe workwear staples here and where to start with a capsule wardrobe here.

2.  Buy second-hand. You aren’t just confined to the op-shop – there’s also Ebay and stalls at weekend markets. This goes both ways — rather than throw out old clothes, which end up in landfill, donate them to your local op-shop or sell them online.

Tip #3: Make sure to wash your pre-loved garments first, which will freshen them up before you wear them.

3. Buy Australian-made. Our fashion industry in Australia is small, but we can support our own economy by buying from local brands that are transparent about the sustainability and ethics of their clothes, from the working conditions to minimum wage standards that apply.

OUR PICK: Local ethical labels you can wear to work


Viktoria and Woods

Accolade Cardi, $190


The Ark






Dress Up by Stephanie Downey

Soft Belted Skirt, $192.50



Note: Not all of Cue’s products are Australian-made, so look out for the ‘Made in Australia’ label on individual items!

Cotton Shirt Dress, $265