The Impossibility of the Ethical Consumer

In January of 2017, the clothing store American Apparel announced that it would be closing all 110 of its North American locations. For fans of the brand’s iconic combination of basic wardrobe pieces of plain tees and hoodies combined with occasional louder pieces of classic denim overalls and velvet sweaters, this was an obvious loss. However, for a certain group of rarely-voiced workers across the world, this was a massive blow. American Apparel, since its opening in 1989, has functioned on the concept of “Made in America – Sweatshop Free” and for its 28 years relied mainly on American manufacturing. In a world of growing humanism it seems surprisingly rare for consumers to consider the implications of where their clothing came from.

Consider, for example, the thousands of people across the nation wearing the popular “Love Trumps Hate” tee shirt. The shirt, most likely worn as a call for human equality, doesn’t actually list where it is manufactured other than the word “Imported” in the description. In an effort to discover exactly where the shirt was made, I went to the website of the shirt’s distributor, a company by the name of Scarebaby Design. I discovered the homepage of the company’s distributor was on cafepress.com/scarebaby. It is a website that looks straight out of the early 2000’s in terms of web design. But more than that, the website sells a seemingly never-ending list of tee-shirt designs that range from anti-war and love trumping hate to an entire collection of niche Seinfeld shirts. However, for how extensive the website is, I could not find any information about where the tee-shirts are manufactured. I contacted the company by my personal e-mail inquiring about where the shirts are made. A day later I received a vague response claiming that because the company ships through many different sites, the manufacturing takes place in many different places. They asked where I “found the shirt” so they can inform me of the manufacturing country. I sent another e-mail specifying which shirt I was referring to, to finally receive a response telling me the shirt is manufactured in Bangladesh. While I do feel the slight need to complement Scarebaby Designs responsive customer service, I cannot help but feel that this  is the type of information that should be listed in the description of the product.

However, it would be foolish to blame this issue on one totally random tee-shirt distributor that I happened to stumble upon while browsing Amazon. The problem of ethical clothing manufacturing exists on a scale so large that most consumers don’t even consider wondering how their clothing came to be before purchasing it. The emergence and rising popularity of “fast-fashion” brands like H&M, Primark, Old Navy and even slightly upper-scale brands like Gap, JCrew, and even Nike have created a culture where the product is the entire idea, whereas the creation of the product isn’t even considered. The reason Scarebaby Designs doesn’t list this information and probably didn’t have it readily available is not because they are attempting to villainously hide the information, but in reality it’s probably because the majority of customers don’t care.

However, what if the average did care? What if the average consumer saw the eerily written word “IMPORTED” on a website and had the inclination not only to find out exactly what country the word refers to, but also what the conditions of the workers in that country are like? The truth is, the average person would probably be disgusted by what they discovered. Like the soon-to-be vegetarian watching hamburger meat be churned, discovering the working conditions of the clothing manufacturer is a horrid sight.

In 2008, activist Jim Keady released his documentary “Behind the Swoosh” in which he visits the sweatshops where Nike workers put together the popular shoes. Specifically, the documentary follows workers at one of the Indonesian sweatshops. Immediately, a viewer can tell that these sweatshops are the site of poor workers, composed of not just men and women but their children as well. For them, the sweatshop culture  is simply an accepted way of life, as it’s their only facet of survival. Besides living in poverty, they also live with so little money or resources that if someone grows ill they aren’t able to afford any type of medical care.Keady’s discovery of the poor conditions didn’t exist solely in the Indonesian sweatshops. In a Huffington Post article he wrote that of the multiple countries he’d visited; Bekasi, Bogor, Bandung, Balaraja, Tangerang, and Jakarta, the working conditions were as equally tragic as in Indonesia.

Behind the Swoosh

The brutal truth is that the woes of the sweatshop worker shouldn’t come as a surprise to any consumer. They are constantly reported about across the media whenever an event interesting enough to grab the public attention leaks into the mainstream. In 2015, British media went abuzz after a shopper found a note in her Primark trousers of “SOS”’s and a call for help written in Chinese supposedly written and placed by a tortured factory worker. More recently, Quartz published a report about how H&M, Gap, and Walmart’s factories need to be investigated seriously for their worker abuse. In fact, Gap’s factories in Bangladesh have consistently been criticized for the dangerous conditions workers are placed into. Even higher end brands like Ralph Lauren were under fire in 2014 for refusing to sign an agreement to aid the conditions of factories in countries like Bangladesh? Every time these stories break out, the reaction is similar. A large group of people, teamed with a voice given to them by the media, make a minor yet loud movement against the company’s poor ethics. The company responds with a resolution to improve so stereotypical the average reader will read the first sentence and move on to a more exciting story. Occasionally the company may actually improve conditions in at least one factory, but on a large scale absolutely nothing changes.

However, what is the average consumer to do if every major clothing manufacturer takes place in this horrid cause? While at times it may seem like the overbearing capitalistic nature of sweatshops rules over our lives, there are actually solutions. Like a vegan who looks out for specifically non-meat food options, the fashionista who dreams of being an ethical consumer may  find options that don’t abuse their workers. One obvious example is the thrifter. Since the year 2000, fast fashion companies have probably produced billions of articles of clothing, millions of which are going unused in every size sitting in warehouses and thrift stores right now. For somebody who is willing to put in the time, thrifting is a viable option. It doesn’t technically abuse the sweatshop worker, as the article if the clothing is in a thrift store that means it’s already a part of the capitalistic cycle of sweatshops. You’re just giving it some new life instead of abusing yet another worker! It’s a small win for the ethical consumer, but it’s better than being another cog in the system.

Another option, and perhaps a more viable one for many consumers, is to be the vegan and seek out the options that work for you. Believe it or not, there are companies that are transparent about the treatment of their workers. One  rising example is Everlane, a company devoted to selling the staples of any man or woman’s wardrobe while being totally transparent about the manufacturing and cost. They tell you when purchasing a product how much it cost to manufacture and ship that item, as well as exactly how much profit they will make off your sale. Along with that, they donate all of their Black Friday sales to workers in a factory in a Vietnam to make sure that every worker can afford a helmet for when they’re at work and getting home.

Another famous example is Patagonia, a mountain-climbing based clothing company founded by mountain climber Yvon Chouinard. In Chouinard’s book Let My People Go Surfing, he shares his experiences in creating the Patagonia company. It started as a revolutionary mountain climbing gear store and  eventually evolved into the environmentally-friendly based company that can be seen  worn globally today. He writes that many times, investors tried to coerce him into no longer donating so many profits to environmentally based charities or paying the extra amount to keep the working conditions of the manufacturers safe and well-paid, but he constantly refused. His book suggests that he adamantly believes had he fallen into the formula of fast-fashion, his company would have lost its uniqueness and very well could have been a failure.

Besides Patagonia and Everlane, there are other ethical options; Oliberte, Apolis, Pistol Lake, Wolf vs. Goat, Norse Projects, Save Khaki, and Outlier. The problem with these brands is they’re generally more expensive than the fast-fashion mall brands, and the average consumer doesn’t care enough about quality, durability, and ethics to spend the extra money when H&M has similar products for cheaper.

Throughout this article, I’ve come back a few times to the comparison of the ethical consumer with the vegan/vegetarian because I feel the issues are incredibly similar. Prior to the ethics of eating animals became a relevant ethical issue, vegetarian options didn’t exist. However, as the ethical implications became a relevant issue, more options appeared because companies realized they could cater to a niche audience and still make a profit. With sweatshops, it seems the niche should be growing more quickly, as human women and children workers are literally dying across the globe. Sadly though, the overpowering presence of fast-fashion culture and the thousands of new relevant products companies steer out each season seems to consistently outrank the concerns of the ethical shopper. Even American Apparel, the company praised at the beginning of this article, was bought out by Gildan, and their products are no longer made in America (which makes the name seem like a blatant lie). This massive step backwards represents the dangers of a clothing company operating ethically and going against the typical model. Sure, it worked for Patagonia and Everlane, but are they outliers? How many have failed and either gone out of business or taken up the typical fast-fashion model in order to survive?

This article may seem like a depressing problem with no solution, but the optimistic view is that awareness alone is the solution. The cultural problem is represented by a study performed by Rebecca Reczek and Daniel Zane at Fisher College of Business and Julie Irwin at McCombs School of Business discovered that consumers who don’t consider child labor practices innately thought negatively of. The hypothesis behind this is basically that psychologically, people either want to integrate the goodness of others into their own lifestyles, or disassociate themselves from if taking part in the goodness would be too difficult. In this study, subjects who didn’t care about ethical consumption most likely still realized it was a moral issue they didn’t take part in. However, instead of admitting their faults, they chose to tear down those who did take part in the moral fight. By claiming that those who shopped ethically didn’t look as good or seemed weird compared to the majority who don’t care, they disassociate themselves from the need to take part in that moral fight. Hopefully, as time goes on, the plea of the sweatshop worker leaving notes in trousers will grow into the mainstream and companies that don’t follow the ethical model will be the ones struggling. Until then, awareness, loudness, and dedication to human rights are the only way to move forward.

Works Cited to Create This Article:

http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/the-myth-of-the-ethical-shopper/

https://hbr.org/2016/04/ethical-shoppers-dont-inspire-us-they-bug-us

“A web of terror, insecurity, and a high level of vulnerability”: H&M, Gap, and Walmart are accused of widespread worker abuse

http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/American-Apparel-to-close-all-of-its-stores-10857158.php

Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-keady/when-will-nike-just-do-it_b_308448.html

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