As somebody who devotedly follows style beauty trends, I see others, and sometimes myself, forgetting about how these trendy products are made.
I am a student in my twenties working a minimum wage retail job. If I can find something current, cute and of a decent quality for a low price (which is not always easy), I’m going to buy it. These are often from stores like H&M or Forever 21. I often do not look at where the item is made. I often forget to consider the people and conditions that led to the making of my new trendy item.
Clothing, makeup and accessories are often not made ethically. We use the term sweatshops a lot, but its encyclopedic definition involves three key things: long hours, extremely low pay and unsafe conditions for workers. We use the term animal testing a lot without realizing that the process does not involve putting mascara on a rabbit, it involves injecting them with concentrated chemicals.
I find ways to bypass my guilt, as a lot of us do. I tell myself that I don’t have the privilege to buy a $60 t-shirt that was made in Canada or America, or through fair trade wages. I tell myself that when I can afford to buy a top that is made in a cruelty-free manner, I will.
Since the mid 90’s people have been protesting sweatshops and are still trying to convince others to boycott brands that use them. Organizations like the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS) are dedicated to fighting against child labour, and ensuring better wages and working conditions.
Recently, in my quest to learn about the ethical gray areas of fashion, I read an article by Nicholas Kristof, an American journalist who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting on Tiananmen Square and rampant genocide in Darfur.
Kristof is a decorated humanitarian, and I was surprised to read that he believes in certain countries, sweatshops are actually a safer and more stable employment option for people. He used Cambodia as an example in his article.
Cambodia is wracked with poverty, disease, famine and dismal living and housing standards. Having lived in East Asia, Kristoff wrote that he had seen the improvement of people’s living standards after finding work in sweatshops. His article is riddled with quotes from impoverished people fantasizing about finding work in a sweatshop or factory.
He writes, “Sweatshops are a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty.” By promoting manufacturing, more jobs are available for those that do not want to be on the street. In his article, Kristoff had worried that by tightening labour standards and cutting off products made in sweatshops in developing nations, economic giants like America could be adverse affecting vulnerable people.
This doesn’t mean sweatshops are better. It is a sad reality to know that such dismal circumstances are preferable. But if we stop the conversation here, we will never progress.
It is a difficult place to be. I do not have the money to buy things the way that I want to. When I do have that money, I do not want to hurt people by limiting the abusive work they can find.
What I can do as a journalist is discuss. If we are going to cut off work from sweatshops, we have to find some way to replace this employment. I don’t know yet whether or not to buy the cute jacket from Forever 21. But talking about these issues is the first step to finding a better way.
By Mursal Rahman
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.