I’ve written and rewritten this post for months. Time to stop being a perfectionist. Here I go, starting with a blank page and writing it once and for all, being okay with publishing it even if it’s raw and unpolished.
I first found out about sweatshops in high school and was appropriately horrified. First, I boycotted the Disney store. Over the next few years, I boycotted the GAP and Old Navy and Banana Republic. Then Nike. Then Victoria’s Secret. Then Wal-Mart and Kohls and JCPenney. Then the Express and Limited. The more research I did, the more “bad” clothing labels I found and the more I boycotted.
As the internet fleshed itself out with information in the early 2000s, I finally realized that “uses sweatshop labor” was the default for clothing manufacturers, not an exception to the rule. I realized it made little sense to approach this by opting out of confirmed sweatshop-using brands. If one wants to avoid sweatshop-made clothing, one must consider all brands guilty until proven innocent. One must boycott everything and only opt in to brands that declare themselves Fair Trade, ethical, or sweatshop-free.
For years, I tried to do this. I tried to avoid supporting sweatshops by buying used clothes from vintage and thrift stores and supplementing them with Made in the USA clothing from American Apparel. It wasn’t enough, though, and at least a couple times per year I still ended up going to regular stores and buying the same old stuff that was probably made by children or slaves (or both). I justified this by telling myself there weren’t enough sweatshop-free options out there, and that I didn’t make enough money to be able to afford them anyway. I rationalized my guilt by telling myself I was helpless to do anything about the situation so I should stop wasting time thinking about it.
This past summer, I became more mindful. I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and I turned to long meditations to deal with it. This led to me becoming more aware of my emotions. I noticed that my sweatshop guilt had not left me. I noticed that every time I got dressed in the morning, I had a slightly unsettled feeling of doing something wrong, of contributing to something bad. Although I wanted to keep pushing those feelings aside, in the spirit of mindfulness and acceptance, I looked straight at them.
It was rough. At first I found myself defensive and argumentative, wanting to push back against this nagging voice telling me to pay attention to the unsettled feeling I had. “You’ll do this later. You care. You’re a good person. That’s enough for now. You’re a broke graduate student. You can’t afford to make any change this minute. Wait until you graduate and have a real job and more time and then you’ll only buy sweatshop-free for the rest of your life.”
It didn’t take much reflection to recognize the absurdity of that. First, the sweatshop issue isn’t about me or my identity as a good or bad person, or at least it shouldn’t be. It is about the workers who are suffering. Second, how ridiculous is postponing action until after grad school? “Slavery is bad and should end, but right now is inconvenient for me. Let’s end slavery later, when I have completed my luxurious graduate degree in creative writing.” I mean, really.
So I told myself I’d listen to the nagging voice and begin paying attention to the issue I had tried to push out of my mind in recent years. I started doing research. True Cost, a documentary about the fashion industry, was immensely helpful and I encourage everyone to watch it (it is available to stream on Netflix). I plan on watching it every few months just as a reminder, as something to motivate me to continue living in line with my values on this issue. I learned about Fashion Revolution and the “Who made my clothes?” movement. I read countless articles about various specific sweatshops and began compiling lists of ethical clothing brands and organizations.
Most importantly, I vowed to start buying sweatshop-free clothes only. I recognize that this is an imperfect action, and probably not enough, but it is a start. Ideally, the US should ban the import of sweatshop-made clothing. That would make sense in a country that is anti-slavery, right? For our country to boast about ending slavery then voraciously consume slave-made goods is disingenuous.
We didn’t end slavery–we moved it outside of US borders. I’m not discounting the significance of the end of US slavery. That was a good, important thing that needed to happen. But to pat ourselves on the back and talk as if that was the end of that, to teach our K-12 students as if that was the end of that, is disingenuous. We did not end slavery; we pushed it onto other people that we don’t have see in person.
I’d like to do what I can to help people realize that slavery has not ended and that we as Americans continue to benefit from it and perpetuate it. I’m not sure of the best way to approach this. People don’t want to feel guilty or bad, especially for something that seems out of their control. Also, I don’t think the responsibility should fall on the individual. Our corporations and government are failing us. They are creating and perpetuating this situation, and then obfuscating it so individual consumers have trouble figuring out what’s what. To make an individual buying a shirt feel guilty when these systems are to blame seems misguided and will probably backfire. Most people will probably feel defensive or make excuses, just like I did for years.
I debated writing a journalistic style article detailing the atrocities and widespread nature of sweatshops. Right now, I just don’t have the time. Also, my purpose isn’t journalism. My purpose is to identify what I personally can do to help end this injustice. (If you are wanting information on sweatshops and modern slavery though, look here, here, and here.)
Moving forward, I will only buy sweatshop-free clothing and accessories. I will probably write about the items I buy here and post photos of some of them on instagram. I recognize that this is an imperfect, consumerism-centric start, but I believe an imperfect start is better than no start. I recognize that, as True Cost points out, the whole “fast” fashion industry is a problem. That we cannot just slightly improve working conditions yet keep the whole larger system in place. But this is the start I see available to me now.
I have faith that, with time, I will learn more, gain knowledge and wisdom, and gain clarity on what action to take. I have faith that, with time, I will be able to do more than “conscious consumption” and a piddly blog post. I have faith that I will think of ways to join a larger movement, to put pressure on corporations to change, to put pressure on government to properly regulate. I know that this issue does not only extend to clothing and accessories. That is where I am beginning because that appears to be the most accessible “in” to ethical manufacturing and consumption. I have faith that, with time, I will find ways to promote modern slavery-free food, furniture, technology, etc.
If you have any knowledge on this issue that I do not yet seem to have, please leave a comment. Share your resources. Share your thoughts. This isn’t something that can be tackled individually.