Does That Strength and Dignity Come in a 24?…Some thoughts on ethical fashion.

Recently, I read a guest post on Rachel Held Evans’ blog: “Strength and Dignity are Her Clothing”: Making Ethical Fashion Choices. It’s a really good intro to both the problems with mass-produced clothing and some alternatives. Overall, I like the piece, particularly because it takes a non-judgmental “do what you can” approach. I appreciate how she pointed out that Christian morality can often be really superficial, like the example of Hobby Lobby caring so very much about what their employees do with their health insurance, but not really at all about the health or safety of the people who make their products.

Leah does a good job of summarizing the issue:

The fact of the matter is that the global manufacturing system is broken. In the cutthroat world of retail, consumer demand for low prices paired with increasing raw materials costs means companies are eager to cut costs in the only place with a bit of wiggle room: labor. And it’s easy enough to do because, as people in developing countries leave failing farmland to work in the cities, demand for manufacturing jobs increases, creating fertile ground for exploitation. Laborers take what they can get, ultimately being cornered into wage slavery by distant corporations who pretend not to know what they’re buying into. In the best case scenario, entire families go to work and barely scrape by. In the worst case scenario, such as the tragedy at Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013, over a thousand people die when their workplace collapses.

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? – 1 John 3:17

I think that Fair Trade in general, not just in clothing, is a hugely important thing for all kinds of reasons. People deserve a living wage and a safe working environment. Additionally, creating a market for clothing manufactured in countries that have stronger worker protections (like the US) is a good thing economically. I try to buy “Made in the USA” when I can, and it’s really disappointing how few options there are for that, particularly in clothing.

However, I’m not sure that buying a certain way, and trying to get other people to buy a certain way, is likely to be enough to fix broken systems. The people who both have the resources to prioritize ethics in their shopping *and* who care enough to do so consistently will probably always be outnumbered by those who fall somewhere on the “can’t/don’t want to” spectrum.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. The cliched but still kind of heartwarming story of the kid throwing starfish back into the ocean comes to mind. Being one of the customers who helps an ethical company keep running and pay its workers a living wage is a good and valuable thing. I just don’t think changing the way you shop is enough in and of itself.

I’m also a little leery of her assertion that “We have a duty as Christians to protect the poor, the widowed, and the orphan by demanding manufacturing transparency and redirecting our spending to companies and organizations that treat people with the dignity they deserve.” Do Christians have a duty to help the poor, the widowed and the orphan? Yes, of course. But this particular way of meeting that duty isn’t feasible for everyone, and it’s one of countless things people can do to protect those who are vulnerable. I don’t think a Saturday afternoon spent at the thrift store (to avoid buying clothing that supports wage slavery and unsafe conditions) is inherently more valuable than that same Saturday spent volunteering at a food pantry or volunteering with troubled youth. I don’t think she’s claiming it is, necessarily, but I tend to give a little side-eye to any sweeping statements that paint a specific picture what Christian duty looks like.

Granted, I live with an inner perfectionist and a little black yippy dog running around in my head. So part of my discomfort with her framing ethical shopping as a duty might be a mental self-defense mechanism to avoid adding yet another thing to stress myself out over. But at the same time, I don’t think she gives enough consideration to the limitations that make ethical shopping problematic for some people.

I think it’s important to consider that not everybody has the ability to buy fair trade, at least not exclusively. Money is the most obvious limitation, but size is another major one. I like looking at pretty clothes, so I spent some time surfing the links Leah provided, and didn’t find a single thing I could wear. That’s not to say there are *no* ethical plus-size options. Igigi and Kiyonna come to mind right off, and Let’s Be Fair has a great compilation of plus size ethical clothing resources. But putting together a whole wardrobe ethically is a lot harder at a size 14 than at a size 4. And at a size 24 or 34? Yeah…good luck.

The most common answer to financial concerns, or difficulty finding a wide range of ethical clothing in your size, is “We should be buying less anyway.” And that’s true, as far as it goes. But there’s a lot of pressure on women to dress “nicely,” and wearing the same clothes over and over again is a departure from that. You can mitigate that by swapping accessories, but those also cost money and are also subject to all the same ethical concerns as clothing. If you have an office job, where dressing a certain way is part of the unwritten requirements (and where those unwritten requirements are often stricter for women), having a variety of clothes can be an important part of that. Your boss may well consider it part of you “being a professional” and it can definitely have an effect on your career. This is especially tricky for people in lower-paying but customer-facing office jobs, where you’re expected to dress nicer than your paycheck really allows.

I also think that too much focus on ethical buying takes away from the need for political involvement and activism to push for better regulations. As I said earlier, just shopping ethically is important, but not the whole picture. Exploitative business practices will continue as long as they’re profitable. (So even making them illegal isn’t enough—the law still has to be enforced and the consequences have to be stiff enough that the risk isn’t worth it.)

Taking business away from those companies is certainly part of making exploitation less profitable. But as I pointed out earlier, the people who can buy ethically and who care enough to do so are going to be outnumbered by those who can’t afford to, don’t care, or simply don’t have the mental bandwidth to take on one more thing. For that matter, even those people who buy ethically won’t do so perfectly. If 90% of someone’s wardrobe comes from ethical sources, the other 10% of their clothing budget still supports exploitation. Even worse, any given purchase, no matter how ethical, isn’t going to be perfect. Companies may claim more ethical practices than they actually have, or there may be ethical issues further down the supply chain (e.g., good conditions for the workers in the garment factory, less so for those making fabric or notions). It’s not possible as a consumer to fully research and track all of that. At some point you have to settle for good enough.

I agree wholeheartedly with Melissa McEwan’s criticism of “tasking individuals with the solutions to systemic problems.” Can individuals make a difference? Sure. But the idea of voting with your dollar has a lot of flaws. I’m all for tossing the starfish that I see back into the ocean. But most people can’t spend all day on the beach without some other part of their life suffering as a result. And, in this analogy, the tide isn’t a mindless force of nature—it’s businesses who are choosing to put their employees in harm’s way and pay them peanuts, because it’s profitable, and because they can. And to a lesser extent, the businesses who buy from them without paying any attention to the repercussions. The kid on the beach is way at the end of this chain. It’s a good thing for him to do what he can, but he shouldn’t be pressured or guilted to take on responsibility that isn’t his, nor should we act like he can fix the problem on his own.

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