22/01/2016 5:09 AM AEDT | Updated 28/09/2016 9:56 PM AEST

Is That Dress To Die For?

I saw a series of recent advertisements for $2 school uniforms being sold by Target and Kmart. Made in Bangladeshi factories, where wages are less than $100 per month, these polo shirts are an example of fast fashion -- clothing's equivalent to fast food.

© Md.Huzzatul Mursalin Apu via Getty Images
Man stitching.

When I was at school in the 1980s, my mum would bemoan the prices of new uniforms every year her two children stubbornly kept growing. Thirty years later, she still wears our old primary school polo shirts around the house and garden. They were made in Australia, and they've lasted.

As a new mum myself, I saw a series of recent advertisements for $2 school uniforms being sold by Target and Kmart. Made in Bangladeshi factories, where wages are less than $100 per month, these polo shirts are an example of 'fast fashion' -- clothing's equivalent to fast food.

Highlighting these ridiculously cheap uniforms was an important reminder about the dark side of fashion and the responsibility we all have to question prices that seem too good to be true, so that we don't support exploitative production practices.

On 24 April, 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1100 people. More than half the victims were female garment factory workers, along with a number of their children in the building's nursery. Built on swampy ground, and with illegally-added upper floors, the building was a structural disaster waiting to happen. Many of the brands who manufactured apparel in the Rana Plaza are instantly recognisable: Benetton, Mango, Primark, Walmart. On 1 June, 2015, murder charges were filed by Bangladeshi police against 42 different people, including the owners of the building.

When I heard the news of the Rana disaster, I felt intense sadness and outrage, and vowed to boycott the relevant brands. But, over time, I heard counter-arguments and became confused. Those arguments included that blacklisting all products made in Bangladesh was in fact harming the companies that were making improvements to both workplace safety and employee wages. My resolve faded, but a concern lingered. The truth was I knew absolutely nothing about the circumstances in which my clothes had been made.

I lived in London last year and often saw protesters outside the headquarters of fashion labels and cosmetics companies. My interest was caught again. Speaking to a PETA demonstrator inside a bunny suit who was protesting the sale of angora in Oxford Street, I learnt about a 2011 book called To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?

Written by British journalist Lucy Siegle, this book highlights the human rights abuses of people at various stages of fast fashion production. From child labour in cotton production, to unsafe working conditions of garment assemblers like those in the Rana Plaza, and the appalling pay given to embellishers working at home.

The book was a revelation. I hadn't even realised the staggering environmental consequences of fast fashion. Rivers in developing countries, which provide drinking water to locals, are being contaminated with toxic waste from indigo jean production and leather tanneries. Pesticides are overused in cotton production, causing cancers and other terrible health problems, not to mention degrading the soil and compromising its productive capacity. Donations of fast fashion to charities contribute to an ever-increasing mountain of waste, much of which is exported to developing countries. You only need to drive past your local charity bins and see them overflowing in a slag heap of poor-quality textiles.

Lucy was the executive producer of a documentary about the fashion industry, 'The True Cost', released in May 2015. This is now available on a number of online platforms.

Morgan Spurlock's seminal 2004 documentary 'Super Size Me' took a bite out of the fast food industry. In 2015, Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau did the same in 'That Sugar Film'. 'The True Cost' is equally compelling, highlighting that we now consume 400 percent more new pieces of clothing every year than we did 20 years ago, and that the average American generates over 37 kilos of textile waste every year. According to fashion designer and clothing brand owner Eileen Fisher, the clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil.

While the problems of today's fashion industry are clear, finding solutions is more challenging. Many retailers now have audit arrangements in place to monitor the working conditions of the factories in which their clothes are produced. But recent research by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute found that supply chain auditing is failing both workers and the environment, and is only really 'working' for business.

In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, there was positive action. Signed on 15 May, 2013, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a five-year, independent, legally-binding agreement between brands, retailers and unions designed to build a safe and healthy garment industry in Bangladesh. More than 200 apparel brands, retailers and importers from more than 20 countries were signatories to the Accord, including Target and Kmart. However, the low prices at which these retailers are selling their school polo shirts certainly raises questions about the effectiveness of the Accord in improving conditions and wages for workers, who are mostly women, and likely mothers supporting families.

But I hear you. It's too much. We're constantly told about ethics in consumer products. Palm oil threatens the habitats of orangutans. Merbau is an unsustainable timber source. Child labour is pervasive in the making of smartphones. And I've barely made a dent in my mortgage.

There are too many things to feel guilty about. And I'm just one person. What can I do?

It's simple. We vote with our wallets.

In the same way fast food chains like McDonald's were forced to respond to consumers' appetites for healthy menu choices, so too will multinational fast fashion houses be forced to reconsider their supply chain and offer 'healthier clothes', or 'slow fashion'.

Buy less. Buy ethically, looking for labels with fair trade and organic cotton. Use repair services. Consider a capsule wardrobe: a few essential clothes that don't go out of fashion and which can be augmented with seasonal pieces.

With their production being done so far away, we've become completely disconnected from our clothes. I hope to raise my son with a more mindful approach to the true cost of fashion. While I have obvious concerns that he'll feel like he's missing out (insert tantrum here), I think the lesson of valuing the circumstances in which his clothes have been made, and developing a mindset of treating clothes as valuable and not rubbish, will be more important.