I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially since I started reading Threads (book update to come tomorrow). The global manufacturing industry is a massive entity, with massive problems. How have its transgressions gone this far? Why do we let sweatshops flourish? Why do we accept child labor — even child slavery — under any circumstances? How can our government just stand by as our country hemorrhages manufacturing jobs? In the past, I believed that most consumers just don’t know that so much of what they’re buying was produced in sweatshops that degrade their workers as well as the environment. Other shoppers, I thought, know what they’re buying, but ignore it because fair labor is such a huge, unsettling issue and sweatshops seem far removed from our daily lives. Some know and just can’t afford to make fair-labor commodities a priority. After all, clothing from Walmart isn’t ethical — but it sure is cheap. In short I thought that most consumers, for one reason or another, choose inexpensive products over anything else.
But then I read the following comment on a website that rates companies according to their labor practices: “If you think the American and British consumers do not care about this issue, you are wrong.”
And I know it’s strange, but after reading that comment it occurred to me that I myself was wrong. Up until now, I’ve thought that we can’t do much more than choose not to support sweatshop labor on an individual basis, so that at best we could satisfy our own consciences. I thought that this was a small movement, a shot in the dark, a kind of financial boxing at windmills. But that’s not true. Consumers as a whole do care. We care a lot. And we’re going to make a difference against the giant manufacturing corporations. Boycotting companies that use sweatshops is a growing movement. Political candidates are realizing that labor and product standards in manufacturing and preserving domestic manufacturing jobs are important issues and that we, the voters, are paying close attention to them. As a nation, as consumers, and as humans, we care and want to make a difference. I really believe that, given the chance, most people would choose to buy a product from a company that treats its employees with respect. Who wouldn’t? Everyone who makes that kind of choice, everyone who avoids Walmart and chooses instead to make a garment, or buy from a fair-labor company, or visit a local thrift store, even for only one or two items, is an instrument of change. Unfair labor practices are the norm right now. But it’s not going to stay that way, because our dollars, and our choices, carry a massive amount of power. For a long time I thought that our largest corporations are built on sweatshop labor, but I see now how untrue that is; our biggest companies are built on money. Our money. They produce for us, and they listen to us.
So start talking. Remember that, when you shop, you’re not just making a purchase, you’re making a statement. Tell Walmart and Gap and Hanes that you’re not willing to accept sweatshop labor. They’ll hear you. Vote for representatives who support overhauling manufacturing in the United States as well as the developing world. Talk to everyone who will listen about what they’re buying and how it was made. Ask the store associates where their products come from; most of the time, they don’t know what that “made in China” label really means. Tell your friends about fair-labor companies. Start conversations. Make a difference. Care.
Oh, and that website? Free2work.org. They rate all our favorite companies according to their labor practices. Their “Score Cards” are detailed and dismaying, but incredibly useful. Check it out, and join in the fight, as Free2Work says, to “End Global Slavery.”