If I had a nickel for every time I resolved to purchase only ethically made clothing for my children, I might actually be able to afford them. But as it stands, my finances just can’t stretch that far, so I’m forced to choose between providing for my children or honouring my values, and I choose my kids.
I’m not naive — I know how much damage is done in developing countries so people in the West can buy cheap goods. The labels on the clothes I bring home for my children often say they come from Bangladesh, for example, where hundreds of garment workers have died at work in the last decade. Factory fires, child labour and wages as low as $0.42 an hour are just some of the conditions endured by the people who make my children’s clothing.
There are other options for people who don’t want to support this kind of economic exploitation. By directing our spending away from the fast fashion industry and toward companies with a conscience, we could change the clothing industry.
But when you’re juggling bills, rent and debt? It’s not so easy. I recently had to choose between buying my daughter a $4 pair of leggings made in Bangladesh or a $26 pair made in Canada. The Canadian leggings were manufactured by an employee receiving a living wage using fair trade cotton. I hate myself for it, but I chose the $4 pair. My daughter is growing and will need new leggings again next year, and that extra $22 was money my family needed.
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The truth is that while many families may want to shop ethically, it’s simply not possible for them to avoid the big box stores and trendy clothing chains that specialize in fast, cheap fashion. We need to be more compassionate about this, and maybe we need to reconsider framing purchases as ethical and unethical in the first place — a poor person who can only afford to buy fast fashion isn’t unethical.
Consumers do have the power to influence supply chains through their purchasing decisions. But they’re not the only ones with power. Focusing exclusively on consumer choice as a way to effect change shifts the blame away from the corporations and governments who have power, too. And it pits the disadvantaged in the developed world against the disadvantaged in the developing world, which benefits no one.
Our lives are deeply embedded in an economic system that is destructive and violent, and we’re not going to extricate ourselves from it overnight. I don’t have all the answers, but you’d better believe I’m looking for them. In the meantime, I hope you don’t judge my kids for their colourful, bargain-basement leggings.
This column first appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Broadview with the title “Buyer’s remorse.”
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