By Natasha Abrahams
Dressing well has an uplifting effect on your mood. When you slip into a favourite outfit and behold yourself in front of your mirror, you see your figure looking its best. You see your impeccable fashion sense at work, and you might commend yourself on your bargain hunting ability. What you may not see is the conditions under which your outfit was made. You don’t see the human rights violations that occurred in order to make such affordable clothing. A heavily gendered issue, eighty-five to ninety per cent of sweatshop workers are women, who may be subject to forced birth control and abortions by their employers.
It is difficult to know how your clothes are made. Companies which utilise sweatshop labour are unlikely to advertise their transgressions. Sometimes it takes a newsworthy event for consumers to be given a sliver of information about the conditions in which their clothes are made. Interest in sweatshops has been stimulated by several tragic incidents in Bangladesh. One hundred and twelve workers perished in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in 2012; seven workers died in a textile mill fire in 2013, and over one thousand workers died in the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in 2013. Fires in Bangladeshi garment and textile factories usually go unreported, with only a sample of the more catastrophic incidents seized upon by Western media. The aforementioned factories had contracts with brands such as H&M, Benetton and C&A; all of which have since signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord.
Refusing to buy from brands known to source from sweatshops is not a perfect solution. While working the garment industry does not pay a living wage in countries such as Bangladesh, it is regarded by some as their ticket out of poverty. Mothers are willing to put their lives on the line in the hope of affording an education from their children. One way for you to exercise your consumer power without boycotting clothing is to buy from ethical clothing accredited brands.
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Ethical fashion companies which proudly display their credentials are often only suited to particular tastes, espousing a flowing, casual, hippie-style aesthetic which would look out of place in the office or at a party. For situations that call for something dressier than a kaftan, there are a handful of high-street brands that have signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord, an important step in the right direction. While the workers in their factories may still be earning less than the living wage, at least they are not risking their lives while sewing your jeans. Most importantly for the consumer, it is easy to look up signatories of the Bangladesh Safety Accord. This is no guarantee that these same companies are subjecting workers to unsafe conditions in other countries, so it is wise to thoroughly research a brand before your purchase.
Ethical clothing can be expensive. As it turns out, paying those who make your clothing a decent wage while retaining profit margins for the middle-men results in a premium price for brands which emphasise their ethical credentials. That does not mean that expensive fashion is ethical, however. Some of the world’s most sought-after designers have a shocking track record for use of sweatshops and child labour, among other criticisms.
Shopping ethically is a challenge that you will not get right all the time. Between the limited choices, hefty price tags, and difficulty of finding out the conditions under which your clothes are made, it is perhaps overly ambitious to attempt to transform your wardrobe overnight. For those whose economic means will not stretch to a $70 ethical singlet top, there is a cheap and easy way to cushion the impact of your consumer choices: op shopping. Buying second-hand clothes and repurposing old clothes are cheaper alternatives to buying sweatshop-free. While your second-hand finds may have been made in a sweatshop, at least you are not directly supporting the industry while also lessening the environmental impact of your fashion choices. Short of becoming a nudist, buying second-hand is the cheapest way to make your clothing habit less exploitative.
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