When you spend money, does it hurt someone?
The movie Blood Diamond was one in a series of mass awareness-raisers in modern times, drawing attention to the cost exacted against human life and human rights so westerners can have diamonds and unscrupulous diamond companies can maximize profits.
The movie title created an effective emblem that has remained with me and made me now wonder where everything comes from, and at what cost.
Without even venturing into political or social activism or extremism we can yet decide to patronize clean and ethical suppliers of clean and ethically garnered goods and services. We can, in a sense, vote with our dollars, and at the same time be aware, as the saying goes, if you feed a shark it gets bigger.
There are investment funds that claim to be clean and clear of fossil fuels, psychotropic drugs, or whatever you happen to be opposed to supporting, in their portfolios. There are Sharia funds if you are Muslim. We have yet to see, however, such ethical bragging in the field of clothing and home goods or the broad appearance of clothing outlets based, for example, on the premise of “Ethically Produced in the U.S.A.”
Yes, there have been fleeting moments of public outrage: witness Kathy Lee Gifford’s ordeal after her own line of clothing at Walmart. In 1996 a human rights group exposed sweatshop labor was being used to produce clothes for the Kathie Lee brand sold at Wal-Mart. Sweatshops employee people for long hours, low pay, and provide an unsafe work environment. They’re just a few notches above slavery and a few below the worst jobs in minimum-wage countries.
Gifford publicly campaigned against international sweatshop conditions with a little help from then President Bill Clinton.
The apparent and immediate benefit of cheap clothes may be hard to overcome in North America barring some kind of wake-up call. Something similar occurred with Chinese drywall towards the end of the real estate bubble in the U.S. With shortages in building materials thanks to the homebuilding boom, U.S. developers started importing cheap (and available) drywall from China to find only a short time later that once installed, the material made homes smell like rotten eggs and was toxic. Homes with Chinese drywall need all the interior walls removed and rebuilt.
You Get What You Pay For when Buying Clothing
But it’s much worse than it sounds when you consider the ill-effects of supporting inhumane working conditions in the name of savings:
- Poor working and living conditions for the people who labor cheaply,
- Child labor,
- Forced overtime,
- Verbal and physical abuse,
- Possible advancing of human trafficking and human slavery,
- Accidents resulting in injury and death in such facilities with unsafe working conditions, (1)
- Negative environmental impact from such facilities that go relatively or wholly unregulated,
- Loss of jobs in North America,
- Export of money from the local economy
If you do “shop your conscience” consider this: birth defects in China have risen almost 71% in 15 years thanks to rampant industrialization and lack of environmental controls .
“The U.S. Government Accountability Office defines a sweatshop as an employer that violates more than one federal or state labor law governing
- Minimum wage and overtime,
- Child labor,
- Industrial homework,
- Occupational safety and health,
- Worker’s compensation or
- Industry regulation.”
In the above sense, products made under such conditions would be in violation of U.S. law if they were made here. “Because they’re not” is a sort of loophole only because our governments have not taken fair measures to see that imported goods comply.
As such, our own governments have been treating North American manufacturers unfairly.
An analogy can perhaps be drawn with cheap, processed foods. While the lowest available price has an apparent and immediate benefit, it is outweighed by the long-term potential perils to ourselves and others. With cheap food we feel good right now but suffer individually and as a group in terms of degraded health and lost production accompanied by a shorter life expectancy, a health crisis, escalating health care costs and all the disputes that come with them.
The essence of the argument and the omen to be drawn from the analogy is that life is symbiotic. Even though we may not realize it or think all our decisions effect us immediately, they eventually do. The more our consumer spending supports inhumane conditions elsewhere the quicker it will catch up to us at home.
It is yet an additional threat to become dependent on such cheap sources of goods. In the United States, how many of us would love to turn back the clock and either produce our own fossil fuels or find alternatives instead of such a ridiculous dependence on the middle east? What has been the cost of convenience when it comes to oil, in terms of exported wealth and war?
So who are the culprits? It is estimated that over 250 million children are forced to work in sweatshops, many kept by confinement or physical abuse. Some are actually abducted and sold while others are forced to live in factories.
While we have an unfortunate presence of forced labor in North America, according to the International Labor Organization, the worst culprits and the percent of their labor that is forced follows:
- Asia, 61%
- Africa, 32%
- Latin America, 32%
And the result is not always cheaper clothes – sometimes it’s simply larger profit margins. Sweatshop-made products have been found in such places as:
- Abercrombie & Fitch
- American Eagle
- Ann Taylor
- Bugle Boy
- Calvin Klein
- J.C. Penney
- Pier 1 Imports
- Polo Ralph Lauren
- Tommy Hilfiger
- Phillips-Van Heusen
- The Gap
- Banana Republic
- Old Navy
- Levi Straus
- Liz Claiborne
- Roohsing (Hong Kong clothing company)
- Kohl’s (3)
What to Do
The solution is to include the origin and conditions of production in our purchase decisions and be willing to pay a little more if necessary to live a clean life as a consumer.
The prevalence of sweatshop goods makes it seem ubiquitous and like processed foods, very hard to in fact avoid. While you can seek out sellers devoted exclusively to ethically made products it may be more practical while such an industry emerges to simply read tags, and stick to products made in the U.S.A. or Canada, and let the manager you do so.
A grassroots demand is impactful once it starts to get recognized by big companies. Perhaps small shops will appear that cater to this need, but in the meantime ethical clothes are beginning to be available online (5).
- Buy ethically-made clothing and other products online and in specialty shops
- Buy products that are made in the U.S.A. or Canada
- Ask store salespeople if they carry clothing made in the U.S.A. or Canada
- Ask store salespeople if they are aware of carrying products made in sweatshops
- Tell store managers you would like to see more locally and ethically made products available
- Spread the word via conversation and social media
We have a chance to prevent further tragedy through these simple steps. We have a chance to imbue our spending not only with thrift, function, and aesthetics, but conscientiousness.
Let’s take it.