Last month an article titled The Myth of the Ethical Shopper gained some traction on Huffington Post along with this follow-up article, So You Say You’re an Ethical Shopper. I have a lot of problems with these articles, starting with the first article’s subheading: “we’re still trying to eliminate sweatshops and child labor by buying right. But that’s not how the world works in 2015.” Okay, well, how exactly does the world work, Michael Hobbes?
The concept that “we are not going to shop ourselves into a better world” is a harmful and inaccurate message that, if heeded, would give us a green light to throw our hands in the air and continue participating in and tacitly approving of a broken system, the burden of which is carried by the world’s poor.
It’s important to note that working to improve the way that the fashion industry does business is complicated, for sure. There is no one solution. Alone, boycotts are not the solution. Alone, buying ethically is not the solution. Alone, advocating for labour reform is not the solution. If any one element was the solution, the problems that exist in the fashion industry (that Hobbes did a fairly good job of summarising in his first article) would all be solved by now. The best chance we have of succeeding in changing the fashion industry for the better is by employing a combination of conscious consumerism, education, and advocacy tools for corporate responsibility – whilst striving for strengthened domestic institutions.
And if making more ethical choices when shopping is what you can do right now to play a role in that success, then start there.
Contrary to Hobbes’s assertions, shopping ethically is certainly not impossible and, as Row + Rue so accurately point out, ethical shoppers are not a myth. But if you’re reading this blog, you likely know that already. Need more evidence? Check out The Ethical Blogger Network to discover more mystical ethical shoppers. Rare as unicorns, we are.
In the spirit of the Huffington Post article, today I’m sharing five myths about ethical shopping that I hear or read regularly:
1. The fashion industry isn’t perfect, but it’s not that bad
Facing the realities of the problems in the fashion industry is uncomfortable, since it means taking responsibility for our role, as consumers, in contributing to or perpetuating those problems. We are all implicated as a result of the things we buy and wear everyday – so it’s easier to turn a blind eye and pretend that these problems don’t exist, or that they aren’t as serious as they actually are.
Let’s talk hard truths. Here are some facts from the True Cost film:
- One-in-six people work in the global fashion industry and the majority of these workers are women earning less than US$3 per day.
- The fashion industry is the world’s second-largest polluter behind the oil industry.
- Approximately 250,000 Indian cotton farmers have killed themselves in the last 15 years.
- We also know that six of the world’s top seven cotton producers are reported to use children in the field (Environmental Justice Foundation).
- Consumers’ attraction to fast fashion has led a staggering 80 billion pieces of clothing being manufactured and bought each year. This is up 400% from two decades ago.
And from Elizabeth Cline’s book, Overdressed:
- World fiber production is now 82 million tons, which requires 145 million tons of coal and somewhere between 1.5 trillion and 2 trillion gallons of water to produce.
- Many large clothing chains produce as much as a half a billion garments per year. For example, Zara processes 1 million garments per day.
And from Lucy Siegle’s book, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?
- Industry estimates suggest that up to 60 percent of garment production is sewn at home by informal workers and their children, who make up the lowest paid workers in the fashion industry.
Though solving all the problems that the world faces isn’t mutually exclusive and we can focus our efforts on improving more than one problem – “as we remember that everything we wear was touched by human hands, amidst all the challenges facing us today and all the problems that feel bigger than us and outside our control, maybe we can start here: with clothing” (True Cost).
2. Ethical clothing is all unfashionable hemp and tie-dye
I’m a little confused as to how or why this myth still persists. Though this might have been true some years ago, there is much more to the ethical fashion industry than hemp and tie-dyed clothing… and the variety of choices grows every year.
Want proof? Check out:
- Hannah’s (Lifestyle Justice) Clothes Stories,
- Rachel’s (My Fair Vanity) ethical outfits, and
- Christine’s (Beyoutiful Hope) ethical outfits.
3. Shopping ethically is expensive
Since I’ve started making more ethical choices when shopping – and avoided the fast fashion circus – I’ve actually saved money. The hunt for the ethical equivalent of trending pieces allows me the time and space to ask: what will I wear this with? Does the colour match other items in my wardrobe? Does this really reflect my personal style? Is there something else I would prefer to spend my money on?
Slowing down to think about what I really need means buying less. Buying the right things means buying less. Buying ethical has meant buying quality items, which means buying less. Buying less means saving money.
Most importantly, a lot of ethical brands are priced quite reasonably (i.e. Everlane and ASOS Africa) and have great sales (which is usually how I afford People Tree). Ethical fashion brands usually fall mid-tier when we compare it to the unsustainable price points of the fast fashion giants, but are much more affordable on a cost-per-wear basis when you consider how long the ethical pieces will last you above and beyond your typical low-quality fast fashion garments.
4. Sweatshops are actually good, because people in poverty need a job
This is a dangerous myth because it can seem logical and very persuasive, perhaps because it involves some truths.
So what part of this myth is true?
- Manufacturing industries (including the fashion industry) play a massive role in the development of poor countries through boosting growth.
- Sweatshops provide jobs for people in poverty, and jobs are needed in order for impoverished people to work their way out of poverty.
- The alternative jobs for impoverished people are often worse than sweatshops: lower-paying, more dangerous and more degrading.
Unfortunately, this myth also includes a few false assumptions:
- Workers always go to garment factories voluntarily.
Even where a worker voluntarily seeks a job in a garment factory, we know slave-like conditions persist in sweatshops. For example, workers in the Rana Plaza garment factory were told to stay inside and keep sewing when they pointed out cracks forming in the walls of the building shortly before it collapsed in May 2013, killing over 1000 workers inside and, in the Tazreen factory fire that killed 112, workers were locked inside and there were no fire exits.
Sadly, it is also not always true that workers are voluntarily employed in garment factory jobs. Where the demand for workers in garment factories is greater than the demand for jobs, women and young girls are trafficked into garment industry jobs. A woman may seek a job in a garment industry but – once recruited – learn that she ‘owes’ her employer money for recruiting her into the job or training her for the job… trapping her in a low-wage garment industry job working long hours in poor conditions to pay interest off a ‘debt’ she could never hope to clear. In this situation, it is immaterial that she sought the job voluntarily – she cannot voluntarily leave the job.
These debt cycles in the fashion industry extend beyond sweatshops. The massive rate of suicide amongst Indian cotton farmers is linked to burdensome debt. In India and much of the developing world, impoverished farmers with small amounts of land often turn to private money lenders (who charge high loan rates) in order to be able to afford to purchase equipment, fertilizer, and increasingly, pesticides and genetically modified cotton seeds. The high amount of pesticides used in growing cotton has caused soil eroision and the loss of fertile land, meaning farmers require more pesticides, more seed and more fertilizer to produce the same amount of cotton year after year. Additionally, these farmers are the most vulnerable to weather irregularites and climate change, which further contributes to poor crop yields. The result? Poor crop yields, low profits, and an inability for farmers to repay loans, causing them to take their own lives.
- Child labour is undesirable but child workers contribute to their family’s overall income.
While this is true, this assumption wrongly overlooks the important role that education plays in overcoming extreme poverty. A child in the workplace is not a child in school, and without education, a child not only has fewer opportunites to improve their living standards, but is also at a higher risk of health issues such as contracting HIV and other communicable but entirely preventable diseases, and is also at a higher risk of child marriage and maternal mortality.
We also know that ensuring children are in school and not at work has flow-on effects to tackling other issues at the heart of poverty, such as corruption. Improved education is closely related to improved governance and institutions; an educated population can better hold their government to account and demand transparency for the expenditure of public money including foreign aid, and the proper functioning of the judicial system.
- Advocating for a fairer wage and better working conditions for workers employed in the garment industry will mean that impoverished workers will lose jobs.
A sustained and comprehensive boycott of all clothing manufactured in Bangaldesh might lead to sweatshops closing and the loss of millions of jobs (as Liz Jones points out in Naked Fashion). But demanding that global fashion giants ensure a living wage and decent working conditions for the workers that make their products does not have to mean fewer jobs.
To put it in perspective, the fashion industry is a $3 trillion annual industry. When we think of the substantial loss of human life that has taken place in supply chains – the Tazreen fire in Bangladesh that killed 112 people and the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1120 are just two examples – not to mention the loss of dignity that millions of workers face daily in working in slave-like conditions, you have to question why the most risk is carried by the most vulnerable and poorest paid people in the fashion industry?
Change doesn’t always have to come at a human cost. We can do better than that.
5. Consumers don’t have the power to make a difference
Michael Hobbes argued that the concept that we can shop ourselves to a better world is a myth. But you only have to look at the relationship between manufacturers and consumers to see that is actually the counterargument – the idea that consumers don’t have the power to make a difference through our purchases – that is the myth.
The basis for consumers’ power is simple, really: we pay money for products, and companies depend on consumers’ purchases for profits. And we, as consumers, can choose to spend our money on cheap products that were spat out of the end of an opaque supply chain or spend that money on supporting brands that are actively trying to improve the fashion industry through using transparent supply chains and factories with decent conditions and paying fair wages. Those ethical companies set a precedent, which leads consumers to hold other companies to account, which catalyses labour reform and stronger institutional protection of workers’ rights.
The catch? Well, first, we have to care enough. In the wise words of Dr Suess: ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.’ Secondly, we need a critical mass of people converting concern into action by using our buying behaviour and voices to communicate to companies that we want change. And if everyone took a small action, we would reach the tipping point for change a lot sooner.
I encourage you to demonstrate that you care by:
- making better choices when shopping and therefore vote for the type of world you want, and
- using your voice; write an email (Template letter here: Who made my clothes?) to your favourite fashion brand (or Tweet them!) and urge them to protect and support the employees who make their products, in all levels of the supply chain.
Have you heard any other myths about the ethical fashion industry? Share them in the comments!