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Fair Trade Clothing: Keeping Silly in Style

Relevant Magazine recently published an article by author Julie Clawson that attempts to “debunk some common objections to shopping ethically.” As for what is “ethical” or “fair,” the article leaves that mostly up to our trusty millennial imaginations, but by reading between the lines, one can gain a pretty good sense of where her foundation lies—or doesn’t. The basic points of the piece are listed below, along with my reactions. Excuse #1: Ethically made clothing isn’t stylish.
“While part of me questions the need to place style above loving others, I understand this is a big deal for a lot of people. The stereotype of organic or fairly made clothing is that it is intended for “hippies”—you know, long flowing skirts, lots of rough-woven hemp, tribal patterns. While such clothing does exist (and can be found in my closet), it is far from being the only ethical option out there.”
Has anyone actually heard this excuse? Indeed, the fact that Clawson’s version of “fairly made clothing” is paired with a hippie stereotype might be an indication that such clothes are tailored to hippies. The entire “ethical” clothing business promotes a specific identity and social pose in and of itself, serving as one of the many great ironies of the hilariously insincere “anti-stylish!” hipster mantra. Excuse #2: Ethically made clothing is more expensive.
“If you are accustomed to buying really cheap clothing from the typical big-box store, the cost of ethical clothing will seem high. I can relate to the desire to shop frugally, but to overcome this hurdle, it may be necessary to step back and consider the hidden costs of the eight-dollar shirt we might typically buy. For a shirt to cost that little, usually the workers who made it had to be paid very little as well. While the reverse is not also true—that because something costs more, the workers must have received a fair wage—it is true that if a worker receives a fair wage (and better working conditions), the cost of an item will be more.” (emphasis mine)
Actually, that isn’t true, and such an assumption illuminates the core silliness of such pretentious posturing. For Clawson, a “fair wage” must be an above-market wage, which would imply that everyone from the bank teller to the bank CEO is making an unfair wage if they or their company holds lower standards or can realistically offer lower wages than their average competitor. When I turned fifteen, I worked at McDonald’s for $7 per hour, but there were plenty of kids with similar experience and skills working at other fast food chains for slightly more (and slightly less, of course). By Clawson’s logic, I was being treated “unfairly,” and, also by Clawson’s claim, the “cost of an item” (and, presumably, the quality) at competing fast food chains should have been higher than that at McDonald’s because of my wage. (Nice to see you, Karl Marx.) The only way Clawson might be able to escape such issues would be to roll out her personal list of superior wages, detailing what is “fair” and what is “unfair” for one industry/job over another (e.g. anything in the $6-$8 range is fair for fast food, anything in the $x-$x range is fair for clothing, and so on). To buy into such nonsense, one must believe that either they and/or the “ethical” companies they worship are the All-Knowing Gurus of Fairness. I, for one, am eager to see Clawson’s robust 500 kazillion-page Excel spreadsheet, fully populated with formulas for fairness and a nice, convenient “Good or Evil?” column for last-minute filtering. Just don’t forget to include those hapless iPhone app developers—the whole “I’m happy to produce for free!” thing is tricky. Hopefully I don’t need to go too much further to illuminate Clawson’s lack of depth on this point. Human exchange leads to complex outcomes, and to assume that fair wages and good working conditions necessitate higher prices is to throw the majority of the productive economy out the window.
“Also try to seek out alternative ways to avoid supporting the conventional system, like borrowing from friends or shopping at garage sales and resale shops. I understand how much of a struggle this issue can be. Many people don’t have the means to buy new clothing at all. Yet I’ve also observed that no matter what a person’s income, new clothing often becomes a priority in our fashion-obsessed culture. Rethinking that priority and reevaluating what you buy is part of what it means to seek justice in this area. This is more than just a price-tag issue, and there are ways to make it work, even if that requires altering habits or making sacrifices.”
I’m glad you mentioned it! “Borrowing from friends or shopping at garage sales and resale shops” is one of the more eco-friendly ways one can purchase clothes (more so than, say, buying a t-shirt whose price tag has very little to do with Enlightened Company X’s $15-per-month surcharge on the utility bill of its Singapore manufacturing plant). But going back to my first point, I find it hard to believe that anyone is going to escape a “fashion-obsessed culture” by purchasing TOMS shoes. Don’t make me use “LOL.” For the love of God. Excuse #3: I can’t find clothing that is ethically made (in all areas).
“The most frustrating is when I find an item for sale that was neither produced in environmentally friendly ways, nor made under fair-labor standards, but which will donate 1 percent of its profits to some charity cause. This helps the buyers feel good about their purchase but distracts from the underlying justice issue. What we need, instead, is for public awareness of these issues to increase and for the demand for clothing made ethically (in all aspects) to increase.”
In a way, I agree. It is extremely hard to find clothes that are ethically made “in all areas,” particularly when those areas are completely unknown to us poor misers who have yet to read Clawson’s Excel spreadsheet full of formulas for “fair” pricing. If we don’t have that, we have to rely on our own emotional reactions to certain prices, and God forbid that could be a legitimate driving force of our decisions. Indeed, Clawson’s bigger issue here is that she finds it hard to locate businesses whose arbitrary notion of value matches her own flavor of arbitrary. Market specialization is a beautiful thing, but Clawson needs to be much clearer about what her heart is telling her if she expects the social justice conglomerate to make it easy on her. Again, I’d recommend an Excel spreadsheet. Excuse #4: If I don’t buy ethically made clothing, at least the workers in sweatshops will still have jobs.
“Of course the economics at play here are complicated. Our global system both employs and harms workers. Some might say it would just be better for me to buy as much as I can to keep workers employed. They question the call for factories to treat workers fairly, claiming that will put other workers who are desperate for jobs out of work. Such arguments claim that workers are grateful for their jobs in sweatshops, because those jobs are better than nothing and to stop sweatshops will destroy their lives.”
Yup. Businesses will try their best to reduce costs, which involves hiring employees at the lowest possible wage. I have no idea how Clawson defines “sweatshop” (I’m assuming it is used quite broadly), but in principle, this is just as evil as hiring a plumber to fix your toilet at the lowest possible cost.
“I am disturbed by the assumption that a worker’s only options are a horribly abusive job or no job at all. Such a view assumes reform is impossible and that conditions can never improve. The call to eliminate sweatshops is not a call to shut down factories (which is too often the path taken by clothing companies caught in unethical behavior); it is a call to improve conditions in those factories. The point is not to destroy jobs and lives but to bring healing to those already broken.”
No. Such an “assumption” is no assumption at all. “Such a view” does not assume that “reform is impossible and that conditions can never improve”; it merely recognizes that such factories are currently the best options in these countries, or are, at least, the best options in the minds of their employees. If these companies picked up and left and their employees were left to beg on the street, would “reform” be suddenly made more possible? What it does assume is that trying to manipulate companies against their will and instituting arbitrary price targets and controls is counterproductive. It assumes that no company with real-life competitors and sensible shareholders will or should agree to blindly pulling prices out of Clawson’s magic bag. It assumes that buying jeans with materials produced at low costs in Venezuelan sweat shops is more in the interests of the Venezuelan people than supporting an ineffective, inflationary “social justice” cartel or starting a bloody war with Hugo Chavez. It assumes that real economic “reform” and progress is a messy thing, and that America didn’t get to its air-conditioned skyscrapers without its own share of nasty working conditions and low wages (more here). Above all, it assumes that, in Clawson’s words, “the economics at play here are complicated,” and that changing the corresponding economic systems is even more complicated—much more so than, say, telling self-absorbed Westerners that by listening to their Inner Price Genies they can place a bet for “social justice” and save the world in style. Spare me.