Four years ago, I was a junior at the University of Southern California when I heard about the Rana Plaza collapse. Over the course of the day, I watched as the death toll steadily rose. The only thing I could think was that the same people who died had literally made the clothes I was wearing. 24th April 2013 was the day I decided to dedicate the next two years of my life fighting alongside Bangladeshi garment workers to ensure that these types of disasters never happen again. Today, I'm a national staff organiser with United Students Against Sweatshops, and my closet is still stocked with fast fashion. Here's why I don’t think that’s hypocritical.
An overwhelming majority of fast fashion is produced in sweatshops all around the world, and that's no secret. The unjust and sometimes deadly conditions garment workers endure to produce our apparel aren't that shrouded, either. Workers in Swaziland were exposed to toxic chemicals; preventable factory fires and collapses killed thousands in Bangladesh. These things happened, and were reported widely.
When confronted with this kind of information, the knee-jerk reaction is to boycott. I’ve experienced this first-hand countless times; when I introduce these horror-story realities to concerned students and consumers, the first solution they typically propose is to stop buying from these brands. But, individual boycotts are rarely effective, and worse yet, they can be dangerous for garment workers who are organising and fighting for their own rights.
In 2008, Russell Athletics, a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom, shut down a factory called Jerzees de Honduras after workers attempted to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement to combat sweatshop abuses. The student labor organisation I work for ran a nationally coordinated campaign on college campuses demanding that universities sever ties with Russell unless the company agreed to negotiate with its workers. The campaign culminated in nearly 100 universities dropping Russell. In total, Russell lost tens of millions of dollars through strategic corporate campaigning, which resulted in a historic agreement between the company and its workers.
Now, imagine that if instead of leveraging these big-budget, strategic relationships, USAS tried to convince individual consumers to stop buying Russell. How many potential Russell customers would have had to change their minds and not purchase a single T-shirt or hoodie in order to have the same impact on the brand?
Here’s the thing: Even if you harbour a heavy fast-fashion shopping habit, you are ultimately not responsible for unethical labor practices. Stores aren’t even responsible, and neither are brands’ sales teams. It’s the top decision-makers at the corporations who are, and that's where change needs to happen.
Boycotting without knowing about the other work being done to address a brand’s sweatshop abuses can also be harmful. Boycotts are designed to drum up negative publicity for brands, which can put a dangerous amount of scrutiny on those who are actually trying to organise on the ground.
Labor leaders who fight against inhumane treatment are often maligned by their governments as threats to a country's profits. (In 2012, Bangladeshi union organiser Aminul Islam was tortured and killed, ostensibly by government-hired goons because of a perceived threat to the factory's revenue.) And, brands place immense pressure on governments in the global south to maintain lax regulations, low trade barriers, and cheap wages, and because countries like Bangladesh rely heavily on these businesses for economic solvency, they are willing to stop at nothing to ensure the corporations are kept happy.
As consumers, it is important to keep this in mind when making shopping decisions. Labor leaders risk their lives in order to organise. It is dangerous for them when consumers independently call for boycotts without worker organising, because if workers are not prepared to push forward with a campaign to utilise those boycotts, their lives could be put on the line.
The solution is internationally coordinated efforts to hold brands accountable and listen to what their workers need. Workers don’t need pity or charity; they need solidarity and allies who are willing to strategise with them about how to hold brands accountable. Survivors and families of survivors of the Rana Plaza tragedy are still waiting for apparel companies to be held accountable. However, these workers have specifically asked us not to boycott: "Boycotts put our jobs at risk. The last thing we want is brands to pull their orders out of Bangladesh. We need these jobs, but we need these jobs with dignity," says Kalpona Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.
So, what about the fact that I’m wearing sweatshop-made clothes as I write a piece about my work in an anti-sweatshop organization? If I were to truly divest myself from all forms of sweatshop abuses, I would need to grow my own cotton, because cotton farmers are mostly migrant workers who are regularly abused. I would need to spin my own thread, create my own fabric, harvest and make my own dye, and sew my own clothes. I could, instead, spend that time strategically campaigning to pressure brands to improve working conditions for workers globally and make long-lasting changes for people who already have the skills to make clothes more beautiful than I ever could.
There are incredibly easy and impactful ways to get involved in the movement to campaign in solidarity with garment workers. If you're a student, join or start a local chapter of the United Students Against Sweatshops, the organization I work for. If you're not a student, or don't have the time to devote a significant chunk of time to the movement (let alone sew your own clothes), there are many organizations out there that can match up with your personal ethics (the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, Avaaz, People and Planet, and Labour Behind the Label, to name a few). Campaign organizations have calls to action all the time, whether that means signing a petition, making a phone call, donating a few dollars, or delivering a letter to a retail store.
I have had the incredible privilege to work side-by-side with garment workers from around the world, and the story is the same no matter what country they’re in. From Honduras to Indonesia, brands have replicated the same systems that hurt people. Corporations operate globally, and so the only way to put an end to these senseless human rights abuses is for us to reach across borders and organize globally, because at the end of the day, we’re all workers just trying to put food on the table and provide a decent life for ourselves and our loved ones. As we said in Bangladesh when I met the families and survivors of Rana Plaza: “Stand as one! Stand as one! Workers of the world, stand as one!”