12 May 2018

Size matters: NZ's 'ethical fashion' doesn't measure up

11:58 am on 12 May 2018

By Nicole Skews-Poole*

Opinion - If you like to tread lightly on the world environmentally speaking then alongside your reusable shopping bags and diligently washing out plastic bottles before squashing them into your recycling bin, you've probably heard about ethical fashion.

New jacket being sewn on mannequin and a measuring tape.

Photo: pressmaster/123RF

Similar to other consumer labels like 'green' and 'free range', there's no gold standard for ethical fashion, and the recent outcry at WORLD selling T-shirts as 'made in New Zealand' perfectly captures how meaningless the term can sometimes be.

To help inform these decisions and raise awareness about the use of child labour and sweatshops in fashion, Tear Fund releases an annual guide which grades manufacturers on things like raw materials, brand policies, transparency and worker empowerment.

Whenever this report is released, or a supposedly ethical brand gets caught being dodgy, it's the hot topic on places like Twitter and Instagram.

Ethical fashion is an easy flag to fly for the progressive masses, and given that many cheap chain stores are the worst offenders, everyone likes to share better living advice about saving pennies and choosing more expensive, ethical and longer-lasting clothes over 'fast fashion'.

But aside from the glaringly obvious cost barrier to that idea, not everybody - and I mean every body - can wear ethical fashion brands even if they wanted to.

I'm a hot fat woman. I wear clothes like a storm. My go-to look is "curvy ginger Stevie Nicks at a coke-fuelled spell circle" and I have the incredible privilege of sometimes being able to pay the (very high) standard prices for ethical clothes. But with the exception of a very small number of labels, I'm simply not welcome to.

When I've talked to people who own small locally-made labels about this, a few of them have explained that they'd love to expand their size range but banks fronting business loans would only sign off on mainstream sizes. I can understand that, and most ethical fashion brands are small(ish) by their very nature - they're not mass made, so their stock is smaller.

But plus sizes being niche is a 'thing' across the whole fashion industry, and it flies in the face of the often quoted statistic that the "average" kiwi woman is a size 14 (plus sizes start at 14), and the reports by Farmers that size 18 is one of their most popular.

When I angrily muse on this (which is often), the words of Denise L'Estrange-Corbet - "clothes look better on skinny people. They just do," ring in my ears.

There are plenty of stylish, higher-income fat women who would kill to only shop NZ made or only shop organic fabrics but the simple answer is designers don't want us.

Finding the handful of labels that have genuine well-labeled plus sizes is an exercise in research which fat women regularly do without batting an eye, but most other people would balk at.

When I complain about this publicly (which, again, is often) I frequently get referred to NZ-owned ethical fashion brand Kowtow, who do a generous XL. But the truth is they just trend towards oversized clothing, so if a plus-size woman fits an XL it's luck, not inclusivity.

I'm sick of being grateful for lucky breaks.

When Denise L'Estrange-Corbet says she doesn't make clothes for fat people because thin people "look better" in clothes, she's not an outlier, she's voicing what most other designers think but aren't stupid enough to say aloud.

I'd like to think people are slowly waking up to the masses of cute fat woman literally yelling 'Please let us give you money!', but in the meantime I'll have to keep spending in less ethical places, or on overseas designers, and that's everyone's loss.

* Nicole Skews-Poole is an activist, freelancer, parent and animal wrangler based in Wellington. She works in community services, politics and tech and is an executive member of ALRANZ.

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