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Feminspire | April 25, 2014

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Sweatshops & Affordability: Moral Dilemmas in Fashion

Sweatshops & Affordability: Moral Dilemmas in Fashion

So far, a lot of growing up and being more aware of what’s going on in the world has left me feeling incredibly helpless. I see injustices everywhere, and don’t see any way that I can fight against them that will have any impact whatsoever. I believe in something that I believe to be right, but I know that thinking about it doesn’t help anything and thus feel very frustrated. To make it worse, every time I speak up about something, I am usually responded to with something along the lines of “it doesn’t matter because you’re only one person, what you do will make no difference anyway, so why bother?”

I really dislike this response. Even if it’s true in that specific situation, I don’t want to be told that I shouldn’t bother with something I feel is important. Giving up trying to help doesn’t magically make me stop caring; it doesn’t make the feeling in your gut that tells you “this is wrong” go away.

A big moral dilemma for me is having all of my options for affordable clothes come from places whose policies on sweatshops and exporting jobs are, at best, questionable. Here’s a scenario for you: socially conscious college student wants to do what’s right, doesn’t have a lot of extra money to spend on clothing, and feels she has no choice but to support businesses whose practices she abhors. Maybe that sounds familiar to you. It describes pretty well my experience every time I find myself at a mall trying to make the most of a twenty dollar bill.

When I first learned the meaning of the word “sweatshop” I was horrified, and remember writing off certain stores as absolutely terrible and vowed never to shop there. This is an easy thing for a middle school student whose parents buy all her clothes to say, but when I got older and was shelling out my own allowance, and later money I’d earned working, those promises to myself got a little harder to keep.

I have never been a big shopper, and learning about the awful practices behind the majority of stores I was likely to be shopping at made me even less inclined to shop. Different stores have different policies and practices, but it pretty much comes down to if it seems too good to be true, that’s because it is. Anything I can buy with a shift’s worth of tip money from my job at a coffee shop almost surely means that someone somewhere is being exploited so that I can feel like I got a bargain. It’s not a good feeling, but when my tips really are my only allotted money for back to school clothes, I feel pretty stuck. I can either not buy anything, or buy a product I feel incredibly guilty about owning.

Many people my age do see the big picture with things like this, and that gives me a lot of hope that over time this knowledge will be more widespread and eventually companies will be pressured into changing their policies. But in the meantime, many people my age have far from a disposable income to spend on clothes, even if they are aware of the votes they are casting with their dollars when they shop at these stores. If it feels like a splurge every time I buy more than one item at one of these places, how will I ever be able to shop entirely sweatshop-free?

I don’t have a solid answer to that question. It seems like at least at this point in my life, there are going to be times when I don’t have much of a choice but to shop at these stores. But I have cut back quite a bit on the amount of money I spend at them, and that is by getting super into thrift shopping.

I haven’t spent much time thrift shopping in other cities, but where I live there are a wide range of thrift shops. When I was younger I hated them because I only ever went to the ones my mom wanted to go to, which generally didn’t have anything I thought was particularly cool. Now that I can see the variety of kinds of shops, I find I’d much rather go to a secondhand shop than the places at the mall I spent years morally struggling over purchases in.

I find that many “vintage shops” are actually just racks and racks of last season’s skirts and sweaters from somewhere you feel guilty shopping at, barely worn, and for half of what you would have spent had you bought it from the store that originally sold it. Just yesterday I was at a thrift store with my mom and found a cardigan identical to one I’d bought a month earlier at a sweatshop-using store I won’t name. It was the exact same sweater, but as it was on to its second life I could buy it knowing that instead of supporting a company with terrible ethics, I was buying from a local business in my community.

I can’t shop at thrift stores every time I need new clothes. Sometimes I need something really specific and don’t have time to search randomly through a secondhand shop hoping I’ll find what I’m looking for. Thrift shopping isn’t the perfect replacement for stores that use sweatshops for a girl on a budget, but shopping at them whenever possible makes me feel more proactive in fighting against practices I disagree with without spending money I don’t have. I’m still just one person, and maybe what I do as an individual doesn’t make much of a difference, but in the long run we as buyers are deciding with our money what gets produced, and I want as little a part in keeping sweatshops alive as possible.

Have you had similar moral dilemmas? If so, how have you dealt with them? Share with us in the comments.

Written by Cleo McClintock
Follow her on Twitter, @cleojo!