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Is ethical shopping helping?

Recently, this article published by the Huffington Post about “The Myth Of The Ethical Shopper” has been circulating the web and I have to say, at first, I agreed with its message. Then, I read it again. Its defeatist attitude changed my mind.

“We’re still trying to eliminate sweatshops and child labor by buying right. But that’s not how the world works in 2015.”

How does the world work? Should we stop buying right? If we stop buying good clothing, we end up in a superficial, sweatshop driven, environmentally destructive world. Or no world at all. The average consumer doesn’t understand the nitty-gritty details of the fashion industry’s supply chain, but they do understand that better materials and better labour conditions means a better world. One only has to watch the True Cost Movie to see that we can’t continue on the path of destruction.

“Those small-batch, hemp-woven Daisy Dukes you bought in Dumbo are far more likely to be made in a sweatshop than your $7 H&M gym shorts.”

I get it. The bigger companies have more to lose, so they’re more likely to have better ethics and sustainability policies. However, it’s also the bigger companies that outsource their products more. They have more cheap clothing to make. Wal-Mart’s in-sourcing model aside, H&M, Zara, Top Shop and many other fast fashion brands still have labels that read, “Made in Bangladesh” or “Made in Cambodia”. They know where their clothes come from and have committed numerous very recent human rights abuses, documented by Human Rights Watch. One or two lines of so-called conscious collections with a few items made of tencel or organic cotton, do not make up for decades of environmental and human rights violations. Those organic clothes could even be made in terrible conditions.

“Listening to consumer advocacy campaigns, you’d think our only influence on the developing world is at the cash register.”

That’s just completely untrue. Most campaigns, like Fashion Revolution or the True Cost Movie are asking for change in the garment industry as a whole, asking people to speak up and ask brands like H&M, Zara, or Top Shop, who made their clothes. They’re shedding light on the abuses of the fashion industry to encourage consumers not only to buy better, but to ask brands to have better supply chains and take responsibility for their workers and carbon footprint.

“As for Western companies, we shouldn’t let them off the hook.”

Good, because for a moment there, I thought this article was suggesting that we should. The negativity of this article is so pungent that I was concerned that the writer was suggesting that the fashion industry can’t change. Beliefs like, “The corruption and inefficiency of developing country governments can’t be solved simply with more employees. But going around these governments won’t solve any problems either” suggest that with or without the Governments in developing countries, we can’t solve the problems that so desperately need solving. How do we solve these issues? Put the Western companies on the hook for their own supply chains. It is their responsibility to look after all of their workers and the environment. Even if they didn’t sub-contract the factories where conditions are worst, they still sold the clothes.

“We are not going to shop ourselves into a better world. Advocating for boring stuff like complaint mechanisms and formalized labor contracts is nowhere near as satisfying as buying a pair of Fair Trade sandals or whatever.”

Or whatever? Why can’t we shop ourselves into a better world? Advocating for complaint mechanisms and labor contracts isn’t enough. Neither is buying a pair of Fair Trade sandals. Consumer advocacy campaigns have gotten increasingly sophisticated. Contrary to the article author’s belief, we have come a long way from the naked protests of the 90s. We are no longer just boycotting a few bad brands, but most, if not all, high street brands and department stores. We are no longer just concerned about human rights abuses, but environmental abuses as well.

I wish we could vote “with our votes” instead of just our wallets, as he suggests on his blog, but it is not Governments who monitor CSR (corporate social responsibility) but the companies themselves, on a voluntary basis at that and, most of the time, not at all. We can’t advocate for complaint mechanisms or labour contracts if they are just going to be ignored. We need to demand strict CSR governance. Fashion industry companies need better corporate ethics. Until then, we must vote with our wallets to keep sending the message of the need for change.

Ask brands who made your clothes. Ask yourself if you can live with your purchases. Then make the change.

Shop less.

Upcycle old clothes.

Reuse worn out t-shirts as dust rags.

Wear clothes at least 30 times. Try for 300.

Ask yourself before you buy something if you really need it. Then ask again.

Organise your wardrobe and look at it with fresh eyes. You have more than you think. You probably have too much.

Don’t simply donate to charity shops and thrift stores, give clothes to relatives or friends.

Learn to sew. Fix your own clothes.

Make your own clothes.

Do your research.

Write.

Document.

Create new solutions.

Advocate for change. Tweet to brands. Tweet to Governments. Ask if they care.

Back better brands.

More importantly, be positive.

Most importantly, as Elle Woods would say, “Speak Up!”

The many issues of the garment industry are not black and white. We can’t just sit around and wait for change. Creating a circular economy would help eradicate fast fashion. Every consumer can help change the industry if everyone cares. The questions is, do they?

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