A little boy works twelve hours a day, sewing up 400 pairs of shoes. He works six days a week, earning less than $10 a day and he’s miles from home.
It’s recently been discovered that refugee children from Syria are working in these conditions in a factory in Turkey. Having fled a warzone, they are now subject to long, tiring work, what many of us would consider slave labour. Can any of us read about this without feeling a little uncomfortable? Can we say these children are being treated with the dignity they deserve? What kind of life can they expect?
When I read about this or about the 1000 people who died when a sweatshop collapsed in Bangladesh, I feel intense anger and then intense guilt.
Many of us know where our clothes come from really, we’ve read about sweatshops before, but the problem seems so endemic that it’s virtually impossible to shop anywhere without doing damage so it’s easier to try to forget. I’ve certainly buried my head in the sand over this one for most of my life.
But I have a vivid memory of working in retail, as one season ended the stock that had not been sold and was no longer needed was being boxed up. I hadn’t thought about where it would go until someone whispered to me, “you know this is all going to be burned? They won’t re-use the fabric, they don’t want to sell it cheaply, so it gets burned”.
I don’t know if this was true or not, at the time I was appalled but I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it, other than try to rescue a scarf or two. However, over the years I have been challenged again and again that there is something not quite right about the way we consume clothes. I know that I have bought and discarded clothes within a year – it’s gone out of fashion, my style has changed or it was made poorly and wore through quickly.
Proverbs 11.24 says, “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.”
I find that the more I have, the more I want. My attitude has always been to ask, what do my clothes cost me? Can I afford it? Until one day I asked for a friend’s opinion on a new dress and she asked, “Who made that?” The question stopped me short and irritated me, I knew what she was saying and I didn’t appreciate the squeamish feeling that was rising in my stomach.
Her question reminded me that someone’s hands had stitched together this dress and I didn’t know who they were, I didn’t even know what country they lived in. After a lot of procrastination, I decided to adjust the way I shop and while it’s not perfect, it’s progress.
I started by trying to buy clothes that I knew were good quality and would stand the test of time. Changing how often I shopped and choosing to invest meant that I reduced the amount of stuff I was buying and made more thoughtful choices.
I then tried to find second hand clothes when I could, in charity shops, vintage shops, or online auction sites. I learned that using what someone would have thrown away or repairing something that is broken is a powerful way of rethinking how much we waste.
Buying second hand reduces the negative impact of how we spend money, but I also know that I want to invest in companies that are doing good. Using ethical shopping guides I found businesses that trade fairly, use organic materials, and follow a model of ethical business. Sweatshops are not a necessary evil.
This process has been one part changing the way I shop and two parts changing my heart, to care more for the needs of my neighbour than what I wear. Although individual efforts make very little difference, if our culture shifted to consume less often and consume more thoughtfully, if we expected that clothes would last, sweatshops wouldn’t be necessary because the high turnover of clothes wouldn’t be necessary. Caring about social justice and human dignity isn’t just about becoming a human rights lawyer or missionary, it’s not just signing petitions and raising money, it can be part of the rhythm of everyday life and it can start small because God can do a lot with a little.
So I just want to challenge you to start thinking:
Do you know who made your clothes?
When you consider buying something, what do you consider?
What does that tell you about your priorities?
What’s the first small thing you could change?