Being part of a class on modern day slavery, I have found myself reevaluating a lot of things in my life. I have come to realize just how prevalent slavery is today and how it creeps into the crevices of so much of the world’s economy. In particular, I do not think I had ever really thought about how widespread exploitation is in the garment industry.
When searching for articles to share on our Twitter, I came across this article a few weeks ago. I had heard about the bad labor conditions in clothing factories before, but I thought that was more of something that happened back in the 1800s before there were labor laws and movements for unionization. I have learned about the Industrial Revolution in my years of schooling plenty of times and heard about a time when people were locked in factories all day and not allowed to take breaks, like when hundreds of people died in a fire in 1911 after which the U.S. finally decided to take factory workers’ rights more seriously. However, I thought that cruelty was mostly over. I thought that terrible factory conditions were only part of companies that made cheap clothes, clothes that I would not buy because of their poor quality and that therefore would not make it to me. But, I started to wonder how I could be sure. How could I know that the clothes I bought were made by people who were empowered and ensured basic rights? The more I thought about it, the more I realized I had no idea how I could tell. Additionally, the fact I had never thought much about the people who made the clothes I wear every day started to really upset me.
I thought I would try to look into where my clothes come from. This is similar to the project of Kelsey Timmerman, a Muncie author, who wrote Where Am I Wearing? How about I start with the blazer I am wearing right now? It is a polyester white cropped blazer with black polka dots. Looking it up online, it seems I bought it from JC Penney, as the brand name “by & by” is associated with that company. I am happy to say that it was easy to find their standards on their website and statements assuring their dedication to only selling products produced by companies that give their workers the kind of rights we all want. But what about another store I buy the majority of my clothes from: Target?
Finding their ethics standards on their website was a little bit harder. Referring to this page, it sounds like I could still feel okay about buying from them. But that is just two clothing companies. Plus, it is a well-known fact that the larger the company, the harder it can be to achieve 100% transparency from 100% of its supply chain. Slavery can creep in even with a company’s good intentions.
So what can we do as consumers to help end exploitation in the garment industry? I think the most important thing we can do is to be aware and to keep on the pressure. If we all do more research into where our clothes are made and encourage companies to create and maintain their policies of requiring fair trade and slavery-free products, then I think we all can make a difference in the world. For myself, I am going to pay more attention to these issues and make noise about it. I think a lot of the reason there are more slaves today than there have ever been in the history of the world is because people are not vigilant consumers. All it takes is a little extra effort and concern to help change the lives of people we forget to think about: the people on the other end of our lives who make everything we use every day. They may seem distant but they are real and alive and their hands made what we use today. Whether those hands were tied or free, metaphorically speaking, is something we can only fight for by pressuring companies.
Here are some additional resources I found discussing this issue:
Timmerman, Kelsey. Where Am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2009. Print.