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?