Cruelty-free clothing

In the academic circles I run in, there tends to be a high degree of concern with animals, which leads either to vegetarianism, veganism, or a preference for organic, free-range, etc., types of meat. One is often willing to pay a premium for products that result from more ethically acceptable production processes.

It’s curious to me, then, that there is no similar movement toward “cruelty-free” clothing. Everyone knows that a great deal of mass-produced clothing is made by sweatshop workers, often including children. It also seems to be the case that it can be very, very difficult to know whether child labor has been used in the production of any given garment — one thinks here of the scandal when Kathy Lee Gifford learned to her horror that child labor was being used in a clothing line that went under her name. There was a boycott effort against various individual retailers when I was in high school, but they do not seem to have produced much in the way of results.

So it seems to me that there are only two options for those of us who want to avoid being involved in child labor. First, given the difficulty of ascertaining whether mass-produced clothing has involved child labor or not, the ideal would be to purchase nothing but bespoke clothing from a tailor you know personally. Failing that, one should only wear second-hand clothing from thrift stores, so that one’s money won’t support child labor. And ultimately, of course, the only answer is to set up local, American clothing factories that meet nothing but the highest labor standards, then rely on people’s conscience to make up for the resulting higher prices.

Following on the paradigm of the rise of vegetarianism, veganism, and organic food, this chain of reasoning seems totally natural and straightforward. Yet nothing like that seems to be underway as far as I can tell. In fact, this seems to be a huge blindspot more generally — for example, none of us seem to be particularly concerned that our computers and smartphones are, by and large, produced in sweatshops that are literally poisoning their workers. I don’t want to pose a false dichotomy between the animal concerns and the worker-related concerns I’m raising here, but the contrast is genuinely thought-provoking. What produces this blindspot?

Is it just a sense of inevitability, stemming from the fact that our entire lives are underpinned by cruelly exploited Third World labor? Avoiding animal cruelty is difficult enough — avoiding entanglement with sweatshop labor may literally be impossible. Is it a sense that “that’s just how it goes” in early-stage capitalism, and all their great-great-grandchildren will surely turn out to be management consultants and creative directors? Is it a sense of hopelessness, given that if any country upgrades its conditions, companies will flee to the next land of “opportunity”? Or do we just prefer not to think about the fact that there are millions of people whose entire lives are being wasted in order to keep down the prices of our consumer goods?

21 thoughts on “Cruelty-free clothing

  1. There was a movement in Canada a few years ago–maybe in the US too–to have campus “book”stores stop selling university branded clothing that was made in sweatshops and/or with child labour. And, obviously, American Apparel, among a few other companies, go out of their way to make child-labour/sweat-shop (and union-free) clothing. But my sense is that “ethical clothing” lags significantly behind “ethical food” (although much food calling itself “ethical” is anything but).

    Most of my clothing is from Old Navy, which means that it was made with the blood of the third world. With the exception of second-hand clothing, my rate of pay doesn’t afford me the luxury of wearing t-shirts that aren’t $8 (two for $15).

  2. It’s a little easier to certify produce as organic, or the ingredients in some cosmetic product as being not from animal sources—or even to certify that a commodity is “fairly traded”—than it is to certify a textile or electronics factory as humane; I want to see this happen, but it’s more complicated.

  3. Cynicism here.

    People do not really want to be ethical if that requires accepting the far-ranging consequences. As Adam notes, given our economic system, our involvement with ethically questionable practices is so pervasive that addressing them threatens our entire civilization. Perhaps movements such as the ethical food movement are a way to slowly “ethicize” our industries, and I hope that may be the case. But the cynic in me notes that generally only the higher and generally leftist socio-economic strata care much for these ethical movements. And they tend to be hypocrites about it as Adam notes, though he does not put it that way or as harshly as I do. I agree with the idea that we could try to bring all these industries home, and perhaps speak to the “Made in America” mythology that lower and generally rightist socio-economic strata love. In the mean time, I wonder if this entire discussion should be a chapter in What White People Like that should be edited for the next, much less “white,” generation.

  4. I have my nieces and nephews make all my clothes. It’s still a little mean, and to be honest they suck at it, but when I order a sweatshirt or jeans, I give them like two weeks. So no sweatshops there.

    On a more serious note, I tried to do some research into this back when I heard a nasty rumor about some companies using sweat shops in U.S. territories so they could put Made in USA on the label. I always ran into dead ends, and after a while, just gave up any semblance of a fight. After all, that practice is particularly egregious because they’re lying in a way that implies they’re using ethical labor but their work practices probably wouldn’t be much different from the companies that were more honest about their clothes coming from sweat shops. I still have vague memories of the companies that were supposed to be the worst – according to the websites I visited – but I’ve been beaten into submission.

    This sounds pathetic, but I’d be game for joining in the fight if somebody would produce a website or something similar that made searching out “cruelty-free” clothes easier.

  5. When questions about the sources of our food and clothing become trendy they also usually become more about “knowledge” or awareness rather than decision making and creating better sources of whatever is cruel. I think that we pay more attention to the food-source/animal treatment questions because they are newer; we are still becoming aware of our various forms of complicity in unjust/violent food sourcing (and yet we have been better at coming up with local alternatives here!). Our complicity in sweat-shops on the other hand is old news. The clothing question actually comes up quite a bit in my circles, probably as much as the food questions. American Apparel is one option but it can claim to be sweat-shop free because their clothing is made in the US by bourgeoisie Americans. A different problem. Their adds have also been a point of controversy regarding the exploitation of women.

  6. I’ve found that awareness concerning sweatshop labor and the textile industry is actually pretty common in anarchist/radical activist circles. A number of my friends from undergrad who’re still immersed in the infoshop/neo-SDS/#Occupy culture go well out of their way to do just what you prescribe: they avoid buying textile products produced in sweatshops, and when this is impossible, prohibitively expensive, or just inconvenient, purchase clothing secondhand. If it’s less common among career academics, I suspect this has something to do with time and money. It’s easy enough to spot and decline animal food products, but much trickier to find affordable and decisively cruelty-free clothing. I think vanity also tends to trump these concerns about cruelty–if people aren’t going to notice or care about where and how one’s clothes were made, there’s not much incentive limit the elements of one’s look within the confines of the relatively small range of ethically produced clothing. But I admit to having been away from academia for two years now.

    Related: I used to canvass for a child sponsorship charity. Our “uniform”–i.e. cheap t-shirts which bore the charity’s logo–were made in Haiti, while the optional baseball caps were from Honduras (a country where the organization has centers set up to help children!). I was unable to learn out much about the conditions under which these items were produced, but it certainly didn’t look good.

  7. Ethical food choices are intertwined with healthy food choices. Perhaps if we were poisoned by clothes made in sweatshops we’d be more concerned about it. After all, sweatshops can become an issue when they put lead in children’s toys.

    Cooking is a valued activity for many affluent people. Those who are willing to spend time understanding the quality of their ingredients and finding those quality ingredients will often be aware of the conditions under which those ingredients are produced, especially if those conditions affect the quality. On the other hand, very few affluent people take pleasure in making their own clothes.

    Animal products are also literally made out of the animals that draw our concern, while most clothes are not visible manifestations of their ethical entanglements. Note that the assumption in this discussion appears to be that it is not wearing sweatshop-made clothes that is the problem, but buying them in such a way that the exploiters profit. Clothes made by exploited workers do not taint in the same way clothes made out of baby seals do. (I’m not saying this is a bad assumption, just making it explicit. However, it probably does, à la David Graeber, illustrate some of our assumptions about economics and exchange.)

    As for electronics, the imagery of high-technology tells us that technological objects are created in highly automated factories; the human labor is largely invisible, and easily forgotten even if our attention is called to it, not being part of our imaginary. There are certainly exposés of electronics manufacturing. However, there is little overt concern with the problem even in tech-savvy communities, though most have probably heard about it.

    Anyway, that’s what occurred to me off the top of my head. I guess my main point is that closely related ethical concerns are probably being funneled through quite different cultural/experiential channels in our heads, a few of which focus our attention and most of which don’t, that to address a particular injustice, it is necessary to make visible the quotidian, physical, and imagistic interface of the products of that injustice in individual lives.

    The discussion here also reminded me of this (wow, older than I expected) post at Making Light.

    I have been assuming that your purpose here has to do with how the ethical concerns surrounding clothing, etc manifest in the lives of a particular sphere of socially conscious academics/professionals — hence my musing on the interface with daily life. There is also, of course, a whole realm of activism devoted to the type of issues you are raising, ranging from various kinds of more direct activist groups (e.g.Global Exchange, Free the Children) to approaches through socially responsible investment (e.g. Calvert) and the like. As it stands, I’m not sure how you intended your discussion to relate to this wider field.

  8. Or, for that matter, cruelty free smartphones/pads/pods, considering the near idolatrous love for all things Apple among academics. Perhaps such options don’t exist.

  9. This is really common in certain milleuxs. There are whole magazines and websites dedicated to allowing consumers to entirely avoid sweat shop labour and campaigns like No Sweat that campaign more formally against it. I have lots of friends who simply won’t ever buy first hand clothes or use any shops known to employ sweatshop labour and haven’t for years. I personally did it for about five or six years.

  10. well, if you want to hear an ugly response, mine would be in line in J. Sakai’s toward the end of her “The Mythology of the White Proletariat,” a book all you idiots should be forced at gunpoint to read until you starve just for the fun of it, is that white americans are simply fucked mentally, and even in the upper echelons of frequenters of this kind of blog, that white america is simply incapable of humanity anymore, and just needs to be wiped out, Forever

  11. Writing from China, here on a business trip to a very big factory. Factories do as much sketchy shit as they can to save money, be it in time, material, or labor. Auditing a factory for ethical practices is like drug testing pro athletes.

  12. Ask a vegan or vegetarian about all the animals that are necessarily killed in the production of your standard issue industrial vegetarian meal.

    More generally, Emily’s point, while harsh, is excellent. As is Jason Hill’s: “People do not really want to be ethical if that requires accepting the far-ranging consequences.”

  13. When I want to teach this point to students, I have them read Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding. The Mahayana Buddhist response to the problem is the best I’ve seen.

  14. Richard,

    Ask a meat eater not to make this smug point every time the issue is raised. “People do not really want to be ethical if that requires accepting the far-ranging consequences” indeed.

  15. I just recently learned to knit. It’s not too hard to find good quality wool that is harvested ethically (and usually locally too). I’ve enjoyed starting to make my own clothes for a fraction of the cost they would retail at.

    We could be at a point soon where sweat shop workers can organize and demand better conditions, that we’ll see a truly global workers movement.

    Also, technology will soon allow us to fabricate many of our material needs individually, creating a post-scarcity economic system.

    In the meantime I agree with the spirit of Emily’s post. It would take nothing short of a total transformation of everything and most of us just aren’t committed to make the necessary sacrifices. But some large tectonic plates are shifting at the moment, and these kinds of total transformations that seem so impossible at the moment, could surprise us soon.

  16. I’ve always tried to buy fair trade clothes, but I do know this doesn’t guarantee sweat-free clothing (, even if it does guarantee a fairer price for the producer.

    Having said that I did my supermarket shopping online the other day (I’m in the UK) and saw what purported to be a cheaper fair trade coffee by far than my usual brand (yes, I should have known what came next), but upon arrival I was set off on a severe rant as the fair-trade seemed to be giving to a charity (Save the Children), now I’ll leave out anything about Save the children (I started a masters in social development before moving onto my Phd in social theory and philosophy, and could go on a merry rant about them, but i won’t), what upset me was that i buy the fair trade because the money goes to the PRODUCERS, not a charity. Whether the charity does good or bad is beside the point. The Fair trade is label that is supposed to let me know that the producers will get me more of the money not a charity instead.

    There’s an interesting post by Adam Curtis that went up today ( comparing the TINA of today with the Soviet years of stagnation of the 70s and 80s, now i’m a buyer of fair trade not because I believe it will save the world one iota, i am well aware that supermarkets, knowing fair trade attracts a premium, actually pocket a far greater percentage of the mark up than goes to the producers, but in the capitalist years of stagnation, there seem to be few other ways to get more money to those producers, even if you know the supermarket bastards are using it to swindle you whilst you do so.

    However now the charities are pocketing the percentage of the mark up that i understood went to the producers, I see a return to the less-enlightened Victorian values of philanthropy rather than an attempt at social justice.

    Which returning to ‘cruelty free’ clothing, means that even though before when I bought fair trade clothing i knew i couldn’t guarantee ‘sweat-free’ clothing, i knew that the clothing producers were, although possibly but not necessarily sweat-free, at least getting a better income. now i can’t even guarantee that!

    (FWIW – Perhaps due to the ‘success’ of fair trade, and the amount of fair trade clothing, even in supermarkets, in th UK there is less ‘sweat-free’ labelled clothing)

Comments are closed.