"But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth." -1 John 3:17-18
In my last post, I shared my thoughts on my role as a consumer, especially in regards to my choices in clothing and in view of the human rights abuses in the fashion industry.
We as women hold enormous purchasing power and influence amongst our families and friends. Who does most of the shopping for clothes, shoes, and accessories? We do! We outfit ourselves, our children, and sometimes even our significant others.
We can use this collective influence to do manifold good for the oft-destitute women who make our clothing.
We can use this collective influence to do manifold good.
The global fashion industry is vast, and the players are many.
I will briefly outline a few of the complexities, but I offer the caveat that I claim no expertise here. I’m just a concerned Catholic on a mission to figure out how to shop for my family without supporting an industry that exploits other families.
First, while many companies have a code of ethics, these are wholly voluntary. Many companies may claim to pay garment workers a wage at least equal to the minimum wage for the country, but this is often far below what would be considered a living wage – that is, for the worker to be able to afford adequate food, shelter, and other basic necessities for their families.
Governments are ill-motivated to increase the minimum wage or enforce international standards and regulations for factory workers, out of concern that the international companies will take their business elsewhere. As a result, many governments lure companies in with loosely enforced regulations and (#moneysaving) incredibly dangerous working conditions.
Further, the garment factories are usually owned and operated at the local level. The larger international clothing company has no direct responsibility for the way the factory is run and might only rarely – or never – visit and audit these factories.
The managers thus lack oversight and cut corners in order to meet the otherwise unattainable deadlines and profit margins demanded of them. This perfect storm is what led to the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh – despite many voiced concerns about the integrity of the building from the workers themselves.
1,138 people died, and another 2,500 were injured.
This is where we as thoughtful consumers enter the process – we enter the fray between the companies without accountability and the governments who cannot risk making a stir.
We can, of course, vote with our dollars and choose to purchase our clothing from retailers who pursue sustainable and ethical practices (more on that in the next post).
But pressure also needs to come from us as consumers on mainstream retailers if we want to effect measurable change in the garment industry at large. Brands respond to consumer demands.
Brands respond to consumer demands.
We need to ask our favorite brands pointed questions about their supply chain and demand transparency: Who makes my clothes? Where do you source your cotton – is it from Uzbekistan, at the hands of unpaid laborers? Are the workers free to form associations and advocate for better conditions? How do you ensure their safety?
The organization Fashion Revolution has a list of immediately actionable ways to advocate for the men and women who make our clothes.
You can join their #whomademyclothes campaign, download templates for writing to your policymakers or favorite brands, and learn how to utilize other forms of social media to spread the word.
Beyond advocacy, we as Catholic feminists can also change our own shopping habits.
I hear your questions:
Does this mean I can never shop at Target or the mall again without pangs of conscience? Doesn’t all this research take a lot of time? Will it really make any difference anyway?
I think the best answer to these questions is simply: progress, not perfection.
Does this mean I can never shop at Target or the mall again without pangs of conscience?
I have compiled my thoughts into a list for you to consider.
Shopping Thoughtfully as a Catholic Feminist:
- Support "fair trade" or otherwise ethically produced clothing as your budget allows (stay tuned for my next post for round-up on ethical fashion brands)
- Shop companies that are making progress in their areas of sustainability, supply chain transparency, or living wages and write to them to keep it up! (again, see my next post for mainstream companies that are making great progress in this regard as well as resources to evaluate your favorite brands!)
- Shop thrift or consignment stores. By shopping secondhand clothing, we are not creating new demand for fast fashion. This also reduces waste by keeping clothes out of landfills and needing less water/toxic waste that goes into creating new clothes. Be intentional, however, about "quality over quantity" and resist buying lots of clothes just because they are cheaper.
- Simply buy less. Focus more on quality, enduring fashion, and a cohesive vision for your wardrobe.
- Shift your mindset. Are my expectations for how much clothing should cost reasonable? How much does a pair of jeans actually cost? How much would a shirt cost to make were the workers paid a living wage?
- Recognize the lure and lies of materialism. This one is last on my list because it challenges me the most. Of course our clothing is more than merely utilitarian; it can also be beautiful, fun, and a form of self-expression. But oh! How susceptible I am to the lure of "more = better", retail therapy, and grounding my identity and self-worth in my outward appearance.
Pope Francis addressed the dangers at the heart of materialism in a homily on September 29, 2013:
These are harsh words which the prophet Amos speaks, yet they warn us about a danger that all of us face. What is it that this messenger of God denounces; what does he want his contemporaries, and ourselves today, to realize? The danger of complacency, comfort, worldliness in our lifestyles and in our hearts, of making our well-being the most important thing in our lives. This was the case of the rich man in the Gospel, who dressed in fine garments and daily indulged in sumptuous banquets; this was what was important for him. And the poor man at his doorstep who had nothing to relieve his hunger? That was none of his business, it didn’t concern him. Whenever material things, money, worldliness, become the centre of our lives, they take hold of us, they possess us; we lose our very identity as human beings. Think of it: the rich man in the Gospel has no name, he is simply "a rich man". Material things, his possessions, are his face; he has nothing else.Let’s try to think: How does something like this happen? How do some people, perhaps ourselves included, end up becoming self-absorbed and finding security in material things which ultimately rob us of our face, our human face? This is what happens when we become complacent, when we no longer remember God.
Dear God, deliver me from my own self-absorption and from turning to material things for security and meaning!
To learn more about the global fashion industry and ethical fashion, check out some of these great organizations, both on their websites listed below and on their social media sites:
The True Cost (documentary, available on Netflix)
Labour Behind the Label
Clean Clothes Campaign
Stay tuned for my next post when I will include a list of retailers pursuing ethical and sustainable practices, including some surprising mainstream retailers who are making excellent progress!