School uniforms aren’t something we give much consideration to when it comes to ethical fashion. We are more likely to consider them a right of passage or a marking of time than an item of clothing worthy of ethical consideration. But school uniforms, just like fast fashion, are made by real people in real overseas factories, and the textiles utilised have an ecological impact.
In recent years, most Australian schools have transitioned to polyester polo shirts as part of their uniform. This is because polyester is durable, quick-drying and can for the best part go without ironing. But when washed, polyester and other synthetic textiles shed tiny plastic fibres - making them responsible for 85 per cent of human-made debris found on shorelines across the globe. These microfibres also enter our food chains when consumed by fish and have been found in our drinking water. The environmental implications of approximately 3.65 million Australian students owning, wearing and washing multiple synthetic school uniforms is huge.
For NSW resident and parent, David, this simply isn’t good enough. “I don’t want to spend a single dollar on something that exploits other people, or contributes to pollution in other people’s rivers,” says David who is currently campaigning for his children’s western-Sydney school to get Fairtrade uniforms. His campaign has been challenging, though. David has been met with resistance from the school and the current uniform provider, and the research is consuming most of his free time between work and caring for his two young children.
In Western Australia, Rachel has also been seeking a uniform change for environmental, health and social justice reasons. In efforts to rid her children’s school of polyester shirts, she has sought support from the WA Minister of the Environment, whose written response to her concerns was complementary yet inactive. No changes have been made and her concerns remain.
“I believe there should be government policy around school uniforms,” says Rachel. “The Minister for the Environment is well aware these polyester clothes are detrimental to the health of the ocean and we are culpable in contributing to the catastrophic plastic pollution problem. Then there are the health concerns associated with wearing polyester. Skin is the largest organ of the body and needs to breath, especially in rapidly growing children, yet we are wrapping our children in plastic fibres and exposing them to plastic particles which can be shed into the atmosphere. Action must be taken, and funding should be provided to ethical clothing companies who already have safe supply chains in place, so that sustainable uniforms can be more affordable.”
With only a few exceptions, most Australian schools have no commitment to sourcing eco-friendly school uniforms, similarly, despite having complex procurement policies set out by the department of education, there is no commitment to purchasing ethically made uniforms, be them Fairtrade or other ethical accreditations.
A lack of publicly accessible anti-slavery policies or supply chain information by almost all Australian uniform manufacturers complicates the issue further. David has struggled to get straight answers from his children’s uniform provider about their supply chains, and other parents and teachers have had similar battles. For Rachel, the change within her children’s school is mainly being delayed by numbers. The school is so small that they can’t meet the minimum order numbers for sustainable alternatives.
Nick Savaidis, founder of Etiko Fairtrade clothing, says these incidents are not alone. “We have many parents and teachers contacting us with wholesale enquiries hoping to change school uniforms, and most attempts are unsuccessful,” Nick says. "On occasions, the matter has been met with such aggression and hostility that any attempts to change the uniform had to be abandoned, especially if the person driving the change was a teacher: their careers were being jeopardised by their effort to support social and environmentally responsible uniforms. They were being threatened.”
“It’s disappointing to think that after decades of conversation around worker exploitation, pollution and climate change, some of our country's biggest procurers of textiles (schools) have failed to make adequate changes in support of a better future for all children, especially considering the concern from youth regarding climate change,” says Nick.
Concerned parent, David says that he won’t give up his attempt to change his children’s school uniform, and often thinks of Martin Luther King Jr’s quote, “We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”
Of course, if you or your children do wear polyester shirts, you can prevent microfibre waste by laundering them in a guppy bag. But the point remains: do schools have an obligation to provide school uniforms designed for a sustainable and socially just future? And shouldn’t uniform providers have to publicly prove traceability and ethical accountability throughout their supply chains? It’s time for parents, students, teachers and politicians to advocate for a better solution for our children and their future.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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