Corporations have consistently chosen profits over people for more than a century, since decades before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911. Fires, disease and on-the-job accidents have claimed the lives of countless factory workers worldwide.
While many wealthy corporations have enough power to keep workers in poor conditions, we as consumers ultimately decide whether their products succeed on the market. The responsibility to decrease sweatshop labor therefore lies with the people.
But it isn’t as simple as just boycotting brands. For students and those working part-time, the idea of skipping H&M; for American Apparel is hard to swallow. H&M;, while popular in the United States, is actually the biggest importer of textiles from Bangladesh — the country with the lowest minimum wage for garment workers in the world, according to the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. Reports have come from multiple factories listing human rights violations, such as payment below minimum wage, unpaid or incorrectly paid overtime, living spaces infested with bedbugs, limited bathroom and food breaks, sexual assault by supervisors and death.
Reducing the power of sweatshops calls for a reduction in product that we buy. Simply not purchasing as many items of clothing as usual can impact the sales of a corporation. The stores that have the lowest prices are the worst offenders: Kohl’s, Sears, Dillard’s and even J.C. Penney have shady track records of sourcing garments from factories with labor violations, according to greenamerica.org.
Buying used clothing at Goodwill, Disabled American Veterans thrift stores and even local outlets like Grand Ol’ Trunk and Rockstar and Rogers will reduce the amount of clothing produced by reducing demand for brand-new products. Additionally, would-be consumers could instead utilize “clothing swaps” — sharing unwanted clothes with a group of friends to expand options for everyone involved.
Even on K-State’s campus, Career and Employment Services holds regular “career closets” to give away business-wear to students for free. For the most adventurous of consumers, buying whole cloth to make homemade clothes or purchasing damaged clothing that can be repaired is also an option.
When you do feel the need for new clothing, using a responsible retailer is key. The Responsible Shopper website, hosted by greenamerica.org, lists companies that have had labor disputes in the past and can help concerned consumers decide where to buy their clothes.
Labels and stamps on clothing can indicate the labor used; the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees label signifies the right of the workers of that company to form unions and trade associations that can bargain for better rights with companies. This signifies a much higher standard of production than the ambiguous “Made in China.”
To be practical, it is probably not possible to buy all of your clothing through fair trade providers right out of the gate. A good starting goal would be to guarantee that a set number of clothing purchases made within the year are fair trade.
Yet consumer culture itself is opposed to this, because shopping is often a social activity. Clothes have long been a symbol of status within society. For some in the community, limiting their clothing limits their status. We can’t deny the sociological aspect of buying less.
But some status can be recovered by offsetting the decrease in quantity with an increase in quality. One well-made, if more expensive, garment is more likely to be ethically made and fairly traded. If consumers decided to buy only these kinds of pieces, their wardrobe would decrease in size over time, while its quality would increase.
The status would shift from the variety of clothing owned to the quality of clothing owned. In this way, people could retain the social impact of the clothes they wear while benefiting companies that obey labor laws, reduce pollution caused by manufacturing and treat their workers with dignity.
The owners of sweatshops and the partners in corporations know what they are doing is wrong. If they even check the status of those manufacturing their products, the glance is cursory at best, ignoring violations that may be too large or costly to fix. We as the consumers of their products need to stand up for those who work in these conditions, especially when those people would risk loss of wages or jobs when they stand up for themselves.
Logan Falletti is a sophomore in public relations. Please send comments to email@example.com.