This weeks marks the four year anniversary of the factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over a thousand people. While I don't talk very often about the reasons I started a fair trade clothing line - I do think it is important for us to think about the impact our purchases have on the world around us.
Most of us realize our clothing is not made in the best conditions. We pretty much assume the t-shirts we buy are made in a sweat shop somewhere across the globe - we feel badly about it, but honestly don't know how buying one shirt from a different place will even matter. And apart from quitting our day job to research ethical companies to buy from, it seems like there is nothing we can do. So we buy the $5 t-shirt or even that really expensive sweater because it's cute, or because we need a shirt.
It might surprise you to hear, as founder of a fair trade brand, that I really don't like the word sweatshop. Not because I don't hate sweatshops (because I kind of do) but because I don't think the word really gives us the full picture.
I have been to many factories - small one room tailoring shops in Africa with dirt and fabric scrap floors. Factories in Central America that look like seas of white fabric, sewing machines, and masked people where they can whip out thousands of white t-shirts or underwear in a day. Leather and jean factories that smell of tanning and sound like blacksmith shops where people are bundled in little groups each with a different task - some hammer snaps, some polish the hardware, some hand sew the finishing details. I have seen basement factories in Southeast Asia with poor lighting and temperatures so high you understand why they are called 'sweat' shops.
But, none of these experiences made me want to change my buying habits. Yeah, I wondered how much these people made. Yeah, I wondered how long they spent in theses spaces. Yeah, it was hot - but it is hot everywhere in Thailand!
The real reason I started to care where my clothing came from, was when I personally got to know the people who work in factories
Most of my friends in developing countries are really happy people despite living in some of the poorest conditions! They value and understand community and family much more than we do in the Western World. They work hard. Most of them are proud of their jobs and proud to have jobs. They have good days, bad days - they have dreams, and would do anything for their kids.
It was not so much my anger for the horrible conditions in factories - although yeah things like factories collapsing should never happen!! The reason I started a fair trade clothing line, is because I wanted my friends to have a better life. I saw how much they struggled, and realized that fair trade production is a way to give them ownership of their lives.
So what am I suggesting? Everyone go buy a ticket to India and live there for a few months? I mean yeah you probably should (if you can). I am suggesting that maybe the only way there will be an actual change in the production of our clothing is when we realize that every piece of clothing we purchase is made by someone. Sisters, mothers, brothers. People who have dreams and at the end of the day are not much different from us.
If you are reading this (and you have actually read this far!), you probably are better than me and actually care about the ethics of your clothing because it is a human rights issue - even if you have never had the opportunity to meet anyone who has ever made your clothes. But, truthfully I think the root of buying more ethically is realizing the power our purchases have in giving good employment to people who have little opportunity. Your purchases do have an impact for that one person who was paid a little more, or owns a small piece of the company they work for, or can just choose how many hours a day they want to work.
Here are five easy tips for buying clothing more ethically:
1) Next time you buy something look at the tag that says where the item is made. It might be somewhere you have never heard of, but look at it and remember someone made it.
2) Buy less stuff! Around the 1980's clothing got a lot more inexpensive and a lot cheaper, which has led us to believe that clothing is disposable. Friends, clothing is not easily disposable, so treat it as such!
3) Buy higher quality items that will not go out of style quickly.
4) Buy second hand clothing.
5) Do a little research. Spend 15 minutes researching your favorite brands (if they don't have a social responsibility clause on their website it is maybe not the best place to buy from). Project JUST ranks several big box brands. Next, find one or two eco-friendly brands that you actually like. Eco fashion, is not eco friendly if you will wear it once and get rid of it. Here are a few of my favorite eco-friendly brands.