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HUMANS: We are a weird species. We have to advertise "blood free" diamonds and mention in movie credits that "no animals were harmed during the production of this film." Isn't it odd that we have to make such a BIG deal whenever we do the obvious, morally sound thing?Since I am committed to buying clothing that is ethically produced, I ask a lot of questions and read a lot of tags, labels, and website mission statements. I started thinking about how shocking it would be if ethical fashion was the norm, and the huge percent of garment labels that are made in sweatshops around the world had tags talking about their labor ethics.
THE WAY TO STOP A CONVERSATION AT A DINNER PARTY IN TWO SECONDS: I have been a big proponent of sustainable fashion for many years. I have found that I can engage people in discussions about the horrific reality of sex trafficking, the fur industry, sexually objectifying advertisements, the need for organic apparel, and just about any issue about fashion, except one: LABOR.
HELPING THOSE "POOR PEOPLE": Try telling someone they shouldn't buy that t-shirt at a store you know uses sweatshops, and watch their reaction. People suddenly get very quiet. Or worse, they repeat the age old myth: "poor people need to work and those factories provide jobs." You don't give homeless children rotten food and justify it by saying "they are so hungry, anything would be good." You don't give a homeless woman a pair of socks that are riddled with holes because "she was cold, she needed something." When I talk about labor, I'm not talking about factories that are genuinely making every effort to uphold labor laws, I'm talking about sweatshops - sweatshops that exist in every corner of the world, including right here in the US of A.
WHAT I DON'T KNOW WON'T HURT ME AND IT'S ALL ABOUT ME: When I started this journey down the ethical consumer road many years ago, I was so shocked at what I learned. I found gut wrenching abuse in cocoa fields that supply the beans that ultimately become those 3 for a dollar chocolate bars everyone loves. I was in tears over the abuse, indentured servitude, and modern day slavery that existed in India where children hand beaded tops for well known department stores. Now, all of those years and ethical consumer websites later, it doesn't seem that much has changed. Factories have gotten slicker about hiding abuse and corporations have become more savvy about deniability. Even though the internet is now saturated with stories about labor abuse in factories that supply clothing to the most popular chain stores in the world, people still keep just enough distance to justify their purchasing habits.
Cotton from Uzbekistan has been boycotted by many garment companies
FAT FACTS: We watch news shows about obese parents who have raised obese children and are outraged that social services has not intervened. When we are on the highway and see parents smoking in a car with their kids, we can't believe it and want to pull them over and lecture them on health. (I'll admit that that one does make me personally very angry). When 20/20 or Nightline expose teachers who have abused kids, or priests who have sexually abused children, we get up in arms. protest, write letters, boycott whatever we need to boycott and do anything else we can to make our disdain known by everyone. But when it comes to the atrocities committed around the world every hour of every day to adults and children on a HUGE scale, just because we demand cheap stuff, we are alarmingly very silent.
Child labor keeps children from getting an education and can be harmful to their physical and mental health.
Charles Kernaghan, the man who shocked the public by exposing labor conditions in the garment industry is discouraged by the lack of change. It's been 16 years since he made Kathie Lee Gifford cry on national television, revealing that her Wal-Mart-sold clothing line was produced by Honduran children working 20-hour shifts.
Unfortunately, spending more doesn't guarantee that the garment you are buying was ethically. Referring to a report he is writing on one of the two factories he visited that produce expensive sweaters for European apparel companies, Kernaghan said:
“It was ridiculous. In fact it was one of the worst factories we've seen. There was child labor, people were being beaten, cheated of their wages — and wages were very, very low. Male supervisors would constantly press young women to have sex with them.” *
Made in the USA does not guarantee that the company is complying with labor standards.
ACTION So, here is my ABCDE challenge for anyone who feels like this shopping frenzy for fast, cheap fashion has gotten out of hand:
1. ASK questions about one thing you want to buy. You'll be surprised at how little information is out there. If the shop can't tell you, go to the manufacturer's website or google their name and see what you can find out on your own.
2. BUY something that doesn't add to the carbon footprint or support current sweatshops. The next time you need or want something new to wear, do one or more of the following: a. buy something at a consignment shop b. buy something vintage c. buy something from a company committed to ethical sourcing and production. The Ethical Fashion Forum is a good resource for finding sustainable, well made clothing.
3. CLEAN out your closet - donate things you don't wear, or have a swap party with friends. Evaluate what you wear and don't wear and use that information to make better choices next time.
4. DISCOVER - find out who is making efforts to make clothing ethically. Great strides are being made by many apparel companies and designers who want to change the face of fashion.
5. EDUCATE - learn about the issue - just read 2 articles on human rights every week. You can start with the list of my sources for this blog post here:
Salon Magazine article
The real cost of that 3.49 t-shirt is hopefully more than most of us are willing to spend.