Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sweatshops or co-ops?: Finding sweat-free apparel

Trying to avoid clothes made through sweatshop labor is one of the toughest kinds of ethical consumerism, because sweatshops are just so prevalent. Unfortunately, practically every item you'll find in almost any store was produced in a factory where people-- mostly women, often teenagers-- spend long hours stitching and assembling for pennies per $30/$50/$100 garment, often in unsafe conditions and afraid to speak up for themselves and their basic needs in fear of retaliation and firing. Factories around the globe are constantly competing to produce apparel for brand-name corporations and retailers at the lowest possible price, lest the companies whisk away their contracts to some cheaper factory, and workers become the victims of this race to the bottom or get replaced by the unemployed waiting outside the factory door.

Finding alternatives that don't help support that process, but instead build the demand for more just and humane production, can take time, effort, and often some extra cash (although not always, because workers get such a small fraction of the cost of items to start with). There are some brick-and-mortar stores selling ethically-made apparel-- do take a look in the National Green Pages (an awesome resource) for what's in your area-- but often it seems like online options are the best bet.

Co-op America recently put together a terrific compilation showing where you can find a wide variety of sweat-free products, called 9 Cool Ways to Avoid Sweatshops. It really illustrates the breadth of options that are available. From dress clothes for women and men, to underwear and tights, to blue jeans and sandals, to bath and bedding, there are a ton of great options for any occasion that you can order online, all from manufacturers that treat workers well (and many of the products are organic and/or based on recycled materials to boot!)

Sweatshop Watch has a shopping guide I like a lot, too. All of the products they list are not just sweat-free with a fair share of profits going to the workers (just like the Co-op America list), but are also made by workers who are either unionized or part of a worker cooperative-- those are some serious assurances that workers are treated with respect and dignity. Just take a look at the website of the women in the Fair Trade Zone worker cooperative in Nicaragua (who produce for places like Maggie's Organics and Rage Baby), or the Ceres shirt-makers in Argentina.

That said... it is very tough to switch to 100% sweat-free apparel (or anything close to that, frankly) under current conditions, and it's certainly far beyond my own personal abilities, inclination, and budget. (Especially because I already have a lot of clothing and I'm not about to toss everything out and start from scratch!) But every time I get to wear a piece of clothing that I know was a part of empowering and supporting workers rather than squeezing and exploiting them, I get a smile of satisfaction on my face and the motivation to add one more item. As a consumer, maybe one step at a time is exactly the way to do it. And as a citizen, I'll keep on fighting the way our choices are structured so that someday, exploitation and sweatshops may be the exception instead of the rule.

(And no, I'm not afraid to have the discussion about "why raise standards?"... part of my thinking was laid out in this post on fair trade, but if you want to debate more, go right ahead!)


Sweatshop Watch said...


Thanks so much for your interest in sweat-free apparel and for mentioning our "Shop with a Conscience" guide! Many, many thanks to you and people like you who care about the conditions under which their clothing are made. Cheers, Sweatshop Watch

Visit us at: www.sweatshopwatch.org or www.myspace.com/sweatshopwatch.

Cardozo said...

A very well-stated and positive post.
You are right that going 100 percent sweat-free is a difficult proposition.

T-shirts and "licensed" apparel seem to be the low-hanging fruit, since these garments are needed by lots of organizations with a stated social mission.

In the meantime...there's always thrift stores, right?