The Expense – and Complexity – of Fast Fashion

This is an excerpt from an essay written by college freshman Jordanna Wones on how college students can get involved in the anti-sweatshop movement. Adapted for our “What Is A Woman?” series in tandem with our brand new podcast by Lindsay Combs. This season, our community is exploring the question, “What is beauty?”

Clothing is a part of our everyday lives. Aside from being an instrument of modesty, it is a form of self-expression. We’re often quick to judge someone based on their choice of apparel because our style is a public statement about who we are. For many of us, shopping is our favorite stress-relieving activity. We all love a little bit of retail therapy, which is understandable. But our shopping habits can have detrimental consequences. Have you ever thought about where your clothes come from?

Take a moment and remove yourself from the crowded, overpriced shopping center. Instead, imagine yourself in a factory with a temperature of over 100 degrees, frantically working to reach your quota for the day, but knowing it’s not humanly possible, all the while breathing in chemicals and powders that seem to set your lungs ablaze.

There’s a good chance that every item of clothing that you are wearing has been produced under horrifying circumstances. Sweatshops are a huge part of our everyday lives, even though we often fail to realize it.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the this epidemic. Some believe that the answer is to get rid of sweatshops altogether. However, that can have detrimental consequences to the workers who are employed there. Many people choose to remain ignorant – an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality. But how can we go through our privileged lives knowing that these innocent people are working in hell just to survive with or without the most minimum of necessities? Both of these positions are equally problematic. As a modern society, we must step up to our responsibility of finding the most effective and ethical solution.

Sweatshop labor is an extremely complex issue, with no neat and tidy fix.

Simply getting rid of sweatshops completely would hurt those employed and their families because they might not be able to find jobs where they live or other jobs in the area are in worse conditions. The solution to the ongoing dilemma of sweatshop labor can be solved by improving the working conditions of the factories, rather than shutting them down completely. Either way, we cannot feign ignorance or be complacent. So then, what can we, as college students, do to make a difference? We might feel as if we have no power, but that is not true.

Even college students can have an impact on the anti-sweatshop movement. Urge corporations to improve the conditions of their factories; organize student groups that prompt university bookstores to stock apparel that has been made under ideal conditions; spread awareness to fellow students.

Background and Origins of Sweatshop Labor

Sweatshops are defined as factories that violate two or more labor laws. They exist primarily in underdeveloped third-world countries, although there are some in the United States. According to the International Labor Organization, in developing countries, an estimated 168 million children ages 5 to 14 are forced to work. Sweatshops are extremely dangerous workplaces riddled with toxins, dust, and hazardous machinery. Some factories don’t provide their workers with the basic protection from these dangers, like face masks, gloves, or eyewear. Because of this, many workers suffer from respiratory diseases and they are often poisoned from the strong chemicals used in the factories. Sweatshops are run like prison labor camps where workers are given a quota to fulfill each day. The problem is, the quotas are virtually impossible to fulfill in the normal work day, so the workers are forced to stay behind and work extra without pay.

As in sweatshops in the 1800s, women make up the vast majority of the workforce in modern-day sweatshops, particularly in third-world countries. The difference is that now, men make up the supervisors . Because of this, sexual harassment is an epidemic in these workplaces, according to a study by Erik Loomis.

They especially discriminate against pregnant women. Many women miscarry at work because they are unable to get the medical treatments they need. Some employers even force women to take birth control and regular pregnancy tests so that they can prevent dealing with pregnancies. The subcontractors are so concerned about money and pleasing corporations that they tend to forget that the workers around them are real people.

What Can Students Do?

It is widely believed by students that because they are so young, they don’t have any power to affect change. But that is by no means true. There are major anti-sweatshop movements on college campuses all across the world. United Students Against Sweatshops, commonly known as USAS, is one of the largest student-led activist organizations in the United States, affiliated with over 150 colleges and universities. This organization focuses on educating students about the increasing dominance of corporations in our globalized economy, as well as the social justice issues associated with the labor movement. Once they have educated students, USAS strives to hold multinational companies responsible for their actions. USAS takes a focused look at the factories and conditions under which collegiate apparel is produced. It would be extremely beneficial for any student anti-sweatshop movement to become affiliated with USAS, if only to learn from the past successes and failures of other campus groups.

There are other large-scale advocacy groups that are striving to align themselves with student advocacy organizations. One such group is the Fair Labor Association, or FLA. The FLA is an advanced and developed organization that needs student voices in order to improve and reach its fullest potential. The group has the support of many large-scale apparel brands, as well as the United States government, giving students access to bigger and better avenues of advocacy. It is crucial that student activists realize they are not alone and have widespread support throughout the country.

Once student anti-sweatshop organizations have aligned themselves with one or more large-scale advocacy groups, there are many things that they can do. Groups often stage sit-ins and rallies to bring awareness to their universities regarding the abuse of factory workers overseas. These tend to be quite effective because universities want to please their student bodies, for the simple reason that they do not want to lose their business. Along with rallies,one big thing that large-scale advocacy groups encourage students to do is to shop with a social conscience. This includes seeking information about where the products are manufactured and about companies’ codes of conduct. Shopping with a social conscience can be difficult because it is unclear just by looking at a product where and how it was manufactured, but by doing something as simple as a Google search, one can find a list of socially responsible companies to shop from.

The first step for student activists is that they recognize that they have the power to radically transform the world as long they are working together towards a common goal.

Students also need the tools and knowledge to understand why sweatshops are such a prominent issue, if they don’t already realize it. By revealing the companies that use sweatshops and emphasizing the conditions, students are able to relate more personally because these could be companies that they shop at most frequently.

Countries that are new to industrialization welcome textile and garment production due to the little amount of startup capital required and the fact that it dramatically boosts exports. The issue is that the industry is extremely labor-intensive and relies heavily on poor, uneducated, or undocumented workers.

With no one to hold them responsible and constant pressure to keep costs low, subcontractors will continue to treat their workers unfairly.

Proposed Solutions

There are many proposed solutions to the overwhelmingly complicated issue of the sweatshop industry. One of these is to simply do nothing. While it seems harsh, supporters of this solution do have reasoning behind their beliefs. It is believed by some that all nations must endure this sort of industrial period in order to become a fully-fledged and developed country. Supporters of this solution also point out the fact that the alternatives to being employed by a sweatshop can be far worse. If people in third-world countries are unable to find work as a farmer, brick-maker, or some other form of labor-intensive job not in a factory, they will most likely become unemployed. Those who are not employed often become prostitutes or are brought into the sex slave industry.

The most practical and useful solution to the sweatshop epidemic is somewhere between the two extremes of doing nothing and getting rid of them all together.

We, as a community, have a lot more power than we often recognize. One of the most effective things people can do is to change their purchasing practices.

It is more beneficial to purchase one high quality item than many cheap items due to the fact that sweatshops exist because of the demand for cheap goods. Another thing that people can do is encourage the government to enforce the current regulations that are in place. This will allow domestic sweatshop workers to have more opportunities to fight for their rights without fear of losing what little money they can earn. These simple things will hopefully begin to manage the most abusive conditions of sweatshops.