From purchasing tickets for “Black Panther” over “The Maze Runner” to buying from Chipotle instead of McDonald's, we all vote with our money. Usually unintentionally, but in the end, every purchase (or lack of a purchase) puts money into an organization we would like to see keep living. Ultimately that is what our purchases do, yes we get something out of it, a burrito bowl, watching a movie, but we are also saying “we want more of this!” with each purchase.
This is one of the most basic principles of the marketplace, this is the “invisible hand” which lets some business succeed, and others fail. Sometimes there is a delayed effect, for instance; you buy some Chipotle, but then you get sick, you were NOT happy with your purchase, but you already gave them your money, you already told the market “I want more Chipotle!” although you certainly do not. Well fear not, next time you will use your new knowledge to make a more informed decision, and next time go to McDonald’s instead or support a new food company and the market will once again work as it’s supposed to.
Nice, right? Sadly it doesn’t always work that way, and one of the hardest industries to see this with is the garment industry. Now clothes probably won’t make you sick, but as we talked about, buying things is voting with your money, and when you purchase from many clothing retailers you are supporting child labor or sweatshops.
You can read more about the issue in this Guardian piece, which states that “The ILO (International Labor Organization) estimates that 170 million are engaged in child labor, with many making textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond.”
At this point you are probably thinking “well I will just support the companies which don’t engage in child labor” but sadly it is much more complicated. The presence of large clothing businesses plays a damaging effect on the market, to the point where it is not functioning as it should. For one thing, businesses are so large that they are unable to follow where all of their clothes are being made from in a never-ending train of contractors and sub-contractors, where workers pay the price.
This leads to areas without oversight, where workers are mistreated. This rules out our “if Chipotle makes you sick, buy from McDonald's” scenario because they both are making you sick. So that leaves buying from a new store, one which is small enough for the proper oversight.
Sadly, new stores are hardly an option. One story from the third chapter in “Unmaking the Global Sweatshop” describes one individual's attempt at creating an ethical clothing store. In making clothes both in, and out of America, one needs a factory. Outside of the United States, the business struggled to get the factory owner to adhere to the ethical standards they wished, because, well why would they? Yes, the factory wants business but the small ethical company lacked the leverage a larger company would have to get the factory to do as they wished.
Once, America factories would ignore contracts to complete orders, preferring to fulfill orders by larger companies first. In both situations, the new ethical business was crowded out by the larger ones and struggled to overcome the norms entrenched in the existing system.
In the end, the business had to admit defeat and stopped production. This all too well shows the problems with the clothing market. With companies too large to oversee their production, and so big they crowd out smaller companies, while consumers are unable to gain the knowledge required to make informed decisions.
Currently most attempts to fix this involve non-government organizations stepping in, and usually give some kind of accreditation, such as “the Fairtrade Label Organisation, the Global Organic Textile Standard and the Ethical Trading Initiative, but all of them struggle with the lack of transparency in the textile and garment supply chain.”
Slightly better is The Fair Wear Foundation has a list of over 120 brands that have signed up to its code of labor practices, which do not allow for the use of child labor. Accredited brands must ensure with regular audits that all of the suppliers in the cut-make-trim stage of production meet these standards, meaning it goes beyond most companies’ in-house policies” (read more here). I argue though, that this is not enough.
As we have seen, the larger and more powerful a company is, the more likely workers rights are able to fall through the cracks, and the harder it is for new companies to rise up. More oversight is good, but this does not get at the root of the problem, such as poverty, and a disregard for the workers. What is needed is for the workers themselves to be able to benefit directly from their work, and that can only be done by them owning the factories themselves.
The workers owning the factories would allow them to work at the hours and pace of their choosing, and the need for oversight would disappear as they would all be equals. The only downside would be that here in the US we would need to pay more for our clothing, but I think we are all comfortable paying a little more, and voting with our money, for the sake of freedom.