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Struggling to be ethical

Well, I am trying to be, but sometimes it’s so frustrating to see something that you really believe in making such slow progress. I’m talking about our ethical clothing campaign.

I guess that I expected the rest of the world to have the same reaction as I did when I saw the Rana Plaza collapse: Shock, sorrow, guilt… I had vaguely assumed that sweatshops were just something in Nike’s shady past. Nike and other “sweatshop brands” had been shamed out of their grubby profiteering decades ago, hadn’t they? Despite my lifelong boycott of Nike (I bear grudges) the thought of sweatshops hadn’t crossed my mind in ages. But images of the Bangladeshi wreckage brought it into eyebulging focus. This kind of treatment of unlucky humans by lucky humans is unforgivable, and definitely not something I, or my fellow lucky-country citizens would ever want to be a part of. Am I right?

So why hasn’t there been a global call to end sweatshops? Why no universal outrage at the plight of our fellow humans? It seems we only care about poverty and suffering if we can point the finger of blame in someone else’s direction. Meantime we turn a blind eye to the fact that people are enslaved to meet our own demands for cheap, disposable fashion.

I feel like we are just drifting obliviously towards forgetting about the Rana Plaza collapse. I feel we are pretending that it’s all been fixed up by token efforts and half measures, like The Accord. It hasn’t. It’s hard.

I admit, I have wavered in my own commitment to shop ethically. There was the time I took a princess costume to the checkout of my local Disney shop and asked whether their clothes were made in sweatshops, to which the sales assistant replied, “Probably”. Flanked by my two daughters who were wide-eyed with embarrassment and watched by every customer in earshot I said, “I’m sorry to hear that” and left.

There was the time I had to buy a Christmas hat for my son, and was tempted to pick one up from the pound shop – so quick, easy and cheap! – but chose in the end to blink back my tiredness and stitch one up late at night.

There was the time I fell in love with a pair of uber-flattering Karen Millen jeans, and didn’t even want to ask the sales assistant about their provenance for fear of bad news… which it was. Even at that point I struggled with my commitment! It’s not “nice” to make a fuss, is it? And my desire to be friendly and non-confrontational is almost as strong as my desire to make a stand for all those women and children locked up in sweatshops! But you’ll be pleased to know I walked out of the shop empty handed.

And there was the time my daughter showed me her own heartbreaking and heartbroken letter to Build-A-Bear in which she asked if their goodies are “made in sweatshops, or by other children who put their lives in danger and miss out on school to make fun toys for the lucky children”. No reply came. I was tempted to tell her I was sure her beloved BAB’s were ethically produced, but it would have been a lie.

At other times, I know I have steamrolled people who have raised objections to my ethical clothing commitment. I oscillate between outrage and heartbreak when I feel like my fellow humans are being inhumane.

“But all those people would have NO work if they didn’t have sweatshop work” – No, they could have the same work, they could just do it in a safe work environment and earn enough money to live on.

“They’re used to living and working like that” – They’re people! They’re human! And even if they are used to it, that doesn’t make it ok. Some sexually abused children are probably used to being abused… doesn’t make it ok!!

“Why don’t they do something about it themselves?” – Because they are unimaginably poor, powerless, vulnerable and fearful. If we don’t speak up for them, nobody will.

“I can’t afford it” – this one breaks my heart. Of course, there are people whose financial situation dictates that they can only buy the very cheapest clothing available, but generally speaking it’s an easy euphemism for “I’d rather spend my money on something else”. There I said it. Hang me out to dry, but it is a matter of priorities, not money. I just can’t imagine justifying “I can’t afford it” to a sweatshop worker. Imagine a woman, just like you and me, who works 18 hour days, who is bullied and most likely subjected to physical, verbal or sexual abuse by her employer, who is exposed to toxic chemicals and made to use dangerous machinery, who is forbidden from drink or toilet breaks, who is fined if production quotas aren’t reached and has no recourse to improve her conditions… and at the end of the day goes home to her slum with meagre rations of food for her children, who have been looking after themselves all day. Imagine telling this woman, “I can’t afford it”.

But the absolute worst – and increasingly common – response I get if I try to discuss ethical clothing is smiling, head-nodding apathy. You can’t combat apathy.

Just when I was beginning to wonder whether campaigning for ethical clothing would ever be anything more than pointless, I stumbled across an article on ThreadGently: This is the real cost of fast fashion. Never again? The article featured a close up image of a parent and child clinging together – dead – in the rubble of the Rana Plaza. The memory of the image still prickles my skin. If I’d known it was there I wouldn’t have looked. But I saw it and it gave me what I needed: impetus.

There may not be universal outrage over sweatshops yet, but there are like minds, a conversation has started and progress is being made. These are the small mercies, and I am grateful for them.

There are other things to be grateful for too, like the moments of relief – almost triumph!- when friends have said they support ethical shopping too, or proudly showed me an item of clothing they chose after reading something on my website.

I was grateful after I piped up in our school committee meeting, hoping I could introduce the idea of ethically produced school uniforms, only to discover that we already have them! Yay! I was grateful having asked about including a commitment to an ethically produced uniform for my daughter’s netball club and the idea was met with enthusiasm! Yippee!

I’ve had the fun of discovering brands who deliver delicious, original clothing and whose integrity in their dealings all along their supply chains is humbling. That’s something to be grateful for. And of course I am always grateful to our lovely readers who read, leave comments and email their support to me. Seriously, three cheers to you guys…

And in becoming acquainted with sweatshop-free brands, I have learned that many also promote their environmental credentials and use real life models. This is fashion that is eco-friendly, ethically made and free from gender stereotyping. HOOFUCKINGRAY!

So, if you, like me have been touched in any way by the plight of the people who died in Rana Plaza or by the knowledge that there are hundreds of thousands of other nameless, faceless workers still being abused on our behalf, I urge you too to keep talking and keep shopping (ethically!). Don’t give up.

x Kate

PS I will never knowingly buy clothing that is made in sweatshops again. Again.

Originally published on diamondsanddaisychains.com

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