Be grateful for small mercies, Kate.
Well, I am trying to be, but sometimes it’s so frustrating to see something that you really believe in making such slow progress. I’m talking about our ethical clothing campaign.
I guess that I expected the rest of the world to have the same reaction as I did when I saw the Rana Plaza collapse: Shock, sorrow, guilt… I had vaguely assumed that sweatshops were just something in Nike’s shady past. Nike and other sweatshop brands had been shamed out of their grubby profiteering decades ago, hadn’t they? Despite my lifelong boycott of Nike (I bear grudges) the thought of sweatshops hadn’t crossed my mind in ages. But images of the Bangladeshi wreckage brought it into eyebulging focus. This kind of treatment of unlucky humans by lucky humans is unforgivable, and definitely not something I, or my fellow lucky-country citizens would ever want to be a part of. Am I right?
So why hasn’t there been a global call to end sweatshops? Why no universal outrage at the plight of our fellow humans? It seems we only care about poverty and suffering if we can point the finger of blame in someone else’s direction. Meantime we turn a blind eye to the fact that people are enslaved to meet our own demands for cheap, disposable fashion.
I feel like we are just drifting obliviously towards forgetting about the Rana Plaza collapse. I feel we are pretending that it’s all been fixed up by token efforts and half measures, like The Accord. It hasn’t. It’s hard.
I admit, I have wavered in my own commitment to shop ethically. There was the time I took a princess costume to the checkout of my local Disney shop and asked whether their clothes were made in sweatshops, to which the sales assistant replied, “Probably”. Flanked by my two daughters who were wide-eyed with embarrassment and watched by every customer in earshot I said, “I’m sorry to hear that” and left.
There was the time I had to buy a Christmas hat for my son, and was tempted to pick one up from the pound shop – so quick, easy and cheap! – but chose in the end to blink back my tiredness and stitch one up late at night.
There was the time I fell in love with a pair of uber-flattering Karen Millen jeans, and didn’t even want to ask the sales assistant about their provenance for fear of bad news… which it was. Even at that point I struggled with my commitment! It’s not “nice” to make a fuss, is it? And my desire to be friendly and non-confrontational is almost as strong as my desire to make a stand for all those women and children locked up in sweatshops! But you’ll be pleased to know I walked out of the shop empty handed.
And there was the time my daughter showed me her own heartbreaking and heartbroken letter to Build-A-Bear in which she asked if their goodies are “made in sweatshops, or by other children who put their lives in danger and miss out on school to make fun toys for the lucky children”. No reply came. I was tempted to tell her I was sure her beloved BAB’s were ethically produced, but it would have been a lie.
At other times, I know I have steamrolled people who have raised objections to my ethical clothing commitment. I oscillate between outrage and heartbreak when I feel like my fellow humans are being inhumane.
“They’re used to living and working like that” – They’re people! They’re human! And even if they are used to it, that doesn’t make it ok. Sexually abused children are probably used to it too!
“Why don’t they do something about it themselves?” – Because they are unimaginably poor, powerless, vulnerable and fearful. If we don’t speak up for them, nobody will.
“I can’t afford it” – this one breaks my heart. Of course, there are people whose financial situation dictates that they can only buy the very cheapest clothing available, but generally speaking it’s an easy euphemism for “I’d rather spend my money on something else”. There I said it. Hang me out to dry, but it is a matter of priorities, not money. I just can’t imagine justifying “I can’t afford it” to a sweatshop worker. Imagine a woman, just like you and me, who works 18 hour days, who is bullied and most likely subjected to physical, verbal or sexual abuse by her employer, who is exposed to toxic chemicals and made to use dangerous machinery, who is forbidden from drink or toilet breaks, who is fined if production quotas aren’t reached and has no recourse to improve her conditions… and at the end of the day goes home to her slum with meagre rations of food for her children, who have been looking after themselves all day. Imagine telling this woman, “I can’t afford it”.
But the absolute worst – and increasingly common – response I get if I try to discuss ethical clothing is smiling, head-nodding apathy. You can’t combat apathy.
Just when I was beginning to wonder whether campaigning for ethical clothing would ever be anything more than pointless, I stumbled across an article on ThreadGently: This is the real cost of fast fashion. Never again? The article featured a close up image of a parent and child clinging together – dead – in the rubble of the Rana Plaza. The memory of the image still prickles my skin. If I’d known it was there I wouldn’t have looked. But I saw it and it gave me what I needed: impetus.
There may not be universal outrage over sweatshops yet, but there are like minds, a conversation has started and progress is being made. These are the small mercies, and I am grateful for them.
There are other things to be grateful for too, like the moments of relief – almost triumph!- when friends have said they support ethical shopping too, or proudly showed me an item of clothing they chose after visiting Diamonds and Daisychains.
I was grateful after I piped up in our school committee meeting, hoping I could introduce the idea of ethically produced school uniforms, only to discover that we already have them! Yay! I was grateful having asked about including a commitment to an ethically produced uniform for my daughter’s netball club and the idea was met with enthusiasm! Yippee!
I’ve had the fun of discovering brands who deliver delicious, original clothing and whose integrity in their dealings all along their supply chains is humbling. That’s something to be grateful for. And of course I am always grateful to our lovely readers who read, leave comments and email their support to me. Seriously, three cheers to you guys…
And in becoming acquainted with sweatshop-free brands, I have learned that many also promote their environmental credentials and use real life models. This is fashion that is eco-friendly, ethically made and free from gender stereotyping. HOOFUCKINGRAY!
So, if you, like me have been touched in any way by the plight of the people who died in Rana Plaza or by the knowledge that there are hundreds of thousands of other nameless, faceless workers still being abused on our behalf, I urge you too to keep talking and keep shopping (ethically!). Don’t give up. x Kate
PS I will never knowingly buy clothing that is made in sweatshops again. Again.
In short, I have undertaken to only shop (for myself, my husband and my six children) with companies who ensure that all the workers along their supply chain are paid fairly and have decent working conditions. It seems like a bare and basic minimum requirement. After all, fashion is fun and expressive and practical… it keeps us warm, it brightens our mood, right? So it only makes sense that our fashion happiness doesn’t come at someone else’s sorrow and deprivation, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it??
Action you can take:
- Join the Clean Clothes Campaign
- Consider implementing a Fairtrade program at your local school – everyone gets educated and the school gets special accreditation
- Ask your favourite retailers about sweatshops via their Facebook page. Give everyone a chance to read their answer! Encourage those who look after their workers and let the others know that they no longer have your custom.
- Order badges, stickers and postcards from War On Want’s Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops website
- Sign an anti-sweatshop petition, like this one, online
- For cheap thrills, vote for which abusive multi-national you hate the most at No Sweat
And if you’d like to use your consumer dollar to influence fashion in other areas you might like to know about the following fashion crimes:
- Goose and duck down: Did you know that the down in down-filled jackets (and duvets) is routinely ripped from a bird’s chest while the birds are alive, and often from birds that are being force fed for foie-gras production until their livers explode – yum yum!? PETA describe the process as violent and painful. I had no idea, but no down-filled anythings will be making their way into the Seamark home from now on.
- Made in China: An amazing, fascinating, historically rich and inspiring country whose economic power is managed by people who choose to support child labour and slave labour, are unapologetic about their disastrous environmental abuse… Made in China is cheap, but it’s certainly not cheerful, so it’s added to my boycott list. (Read the garment labels which are legally required to state the country in which the item was made, and check out Not Made in China Life for more information.)
- Fur: thanks to reader Anne Kielty who emailed me about boycotting fur. As I explained to Anne, I have NEVER bought fur, after my mum encouraged me to watch a documentary in the 80’s, in which baby seals were clubbed to death and skinned. Not vintage, not faux, just no fur, ever.
- Australian wool: 1. mulesing- It involves slicing the skin from a lamb’s back legs, and docking and skinning the tail, all without anaesthetic, and has been demonstrated to be particularly painful. It is done to protect against flystrike. Now, flystrike is a genuine problem in Australia but there are alternatives to mulesing which include breeding to minimise skin folds, the use of spray washes and dips, dietary change, non-surgical alternatives or the use of analgesia. 2 – Live sheep export, for the same reason that live cattle should not be exported. (This video contains no graphic footage.) Abercrombie & Fitch, Liz Claiborne and John Lewis have all boycotted Australian wool, and so do I.
- Angora: Beautiful, soft, fluffy angora is harvested from rabbits. It could be like shearing sheep, whereby an expert uses clippers to gently trim the fur, but because of price pressure, 90% of angora comes from China (see above) Time and money are put ahead of animal welfare and after lives similar to those of battery chickens, angora rabbits are essentially skinned alive. The Daily Mail recently published “Agony of the rabbits plucked alive for your fluffy jumpers” which is not for the faint hearted.
Great ethical fashion reading (and shopping) is here: leave a comment for one of these writers to let them know you support their cause – campaigning can be lonely work!