Today I'm happy to share a guest post by Mary of Verily Merrily Mary. I love her blog because she boldly tackles hard issues and facilitates lots of good discussion, and today she's here to start a conversation about something many of us fashion lovers have pondered long and hard: ethical consumerism and fair trade.
It’s no secret that sweatshops have injustice threaded into the fabrics they produce. It is also no secret that virtually every piece of clothing that makes its way into the West is stitched with these fabrics. Along with these articles of clothing, the production of shoes and accessories are almost always problematic. But three years ago, I came across what I perceived to be the solution to sweatshops, a solution that would be one step forward in the fight for social justice in the supply and mass production of merchandise.
The CEO of a certain company came to my university to present their mission and how their bags and accessories were different from what the general public would typically buy. She mentioned that her company is fair trade certified, one that trains artisans abroad to make products for their company. Unlike sweatshops, workers in “Third World Countries” work fair hours and receive fair compensation for their labor. No child is exploited. No person receives cheap pay. Essentially, they go with the “teach a man to fish” approach and the lives of the workers are changed for good.
Many people believe that companies like these are the solution to ending the existence of sweatshops as we know it. They are the beacon of hope for workers in poorer countries that could otherwise be exploited or jobless. And as such, companies like these urge those of us in the West to do the best we can to purchase their products. Others go a step further and say that we should make it a goal to live off of fair trade products only. And by doing this, we are living a truly ethical consumer lifestyle.
On the surface, this sounds pleasant and inspiring, an undertaking that makes shopping an act of social justice instead of your everyday, run-of-the-mill consumerism. But if anyone is familiar with fair trade clothing, one of the things that makes them distinctly different from sweatshop clothing is their price. Since the artisans are getting their fair share and suppliers are not being grossly ripped off of the natural resources needed to make the products, the retail price tends to be expensive. For example, what would normally be a $15 pair of pants could be $40 or even more. Your average consumer would likely have a hard time affording it. When looking at the United States alone, 25% to 66% of those living in America are in the middle class. 45 million other Americans live below the poverty line. A fair trade only lifestyle would be especially hard to keep up for those in this demographic.
Since Fair Trade companies are their own entity and are not affiliated with sweatshops, they typically do not get involved in the social justice issues that contribute to making sweatshops a more ethical place to work. According to this article, since the United States is the most demanding of cheap clothing from sweatshops, it is up to U.S. department stores who sell their products to make sure that children are not exploited, factories are safe, and people earn the wage that they deserve. Fortunately, there are some companies that are putting pressure on their supply chains to make sure workers are treated fairly. All this to say, it takes more than purchases from fair trade companies to advocate for those who work in sweatshops.
Often times, conversations about sweatshops are talked about outside of the United States and the Western world. Reality is that there are exploitative sweatshops inside of the United States despite the fact that we have laws in the United States that protect workers. Obviously, purchasing from fair trade companies whose suppliers are foreign has no connection to making sure sweatshops in U.S. soil have just conditions and a just wage.
Clearly, the situation concerning social justice in the textile industry is multifaceted. While purchasing from fair trade companies contributes positively to the movement of justice, a lot more is required for an overhaul of the entire industry where exploitation is non-existent.
Given what you know about fair trade and sweatshops, what are your thoughts on social justice in textile factories? What are some initiatives or movements that could contribute to a better working conditions for textile workers and an affordable price for those who buy from them?
About the Blogger
Mary is a 20-something millennial trying to survive the post-grad life much like other millennials are doing. She is a bi-tribal (Efik & Igbo) Nigerian-Canadian-American third culture kid (TCK) with Nigeria as her place of birth and sunny, Southern California as her current home. She is a storyteller and a writing coach at Verily Merrily Mary who uses her stories and insights to spark cultural conversations. As a writing coach she equips and emboldens difference makers to use the power of the written word to affect change.