Labor Rights: A Consumer Issue

As I sit in the back of my macroeconomics class, I behold a sea of illuminated laptop screens. Each screen has the same image: rows and rows of clothes. I see my classmates mindlessly clicking and dragging each item of clothing into the electronic shopping basket. It is hard not to cringe when I see the subsequent flood of social justice stickers as they close their laptops at the end of class.

I have always heard of Nike’s sweatshops, but the issue of labor rights had not crossed my mind until I read “Why Students Aren’t Fighting Forever 21,” an article in The New Yorker from June 2014 that details the culture of disposable fashion supported by the brand. We buy its cheap clothing that is destroyed easily, which creates a need to buy more clothing — preferably something affordable — from Forever 21.

I learned how labor rights activists have to play a game of tag with the company as it constantly moves from country to country, but the worst aspect is the lack of accountability. We can shame Nike wearers for the support they give to abusive sweatshop labor in Indonesia, but how do we identify a Forever 21 shopper? I looked through my closet and realized that 75 percent of my clothes were from Forever 21, which pained me.

I want to be a conscious shopper, but why is it so hard? I have good intentions, but I am also on financial aid. I try to shop at thrift stores if I have to shop, but what good am I doing? Is the onus on me as a consumer? At the end of the day, is one person going to change the world? As I sit in my room, I think, “Why is it so hard to be an ethical consumer? Why do we have to jump through so many hoops?” It is definitely not the responsibility of the laborers in Indonesia to change this, so is it that of the individual consumers’ instead?

And what about all the other things we consume, like water? What about shorter showers? We often hear about people dying from a lack of water or how the world will run out of water. The solution is to take shorter showers, yet more than 90 percent of water is used by agriculture and industry. The last 10 percent is divided between cities and people. So why should the individual’s consumption be the ideal solution for saving water? We are running out of water because water is being stolen by corporations.

We, as consumers, have more power than laborers in developing countries, who must continue participating in the system to survive — even if surviving is barely living. However, our roles as individual consumers are not our most powerful identities. We all know that it takes more than one person to change the world, so placing the responsibility on individuals is not the most productive way to address these problems. Instead of navigating this system of oppression with as much integrity as possible, we need to take it down.

Choosing the alternative lifestyle of living simply to cause less harm on the world is definitely a welcome decision. It is the way I aspire to live, but the good feelings that come from the lifestyle of an ethical consumer are not enough. Ethical shopping is a good supplement to the real work we need to be doing, which is combating the power the industrial economy has on our society. However, I cannot prescribe an exact way of achieving this. Do we need to regulate the system more or abolish it all and start over?

Although actively fighting the industrial economy is extremely frightening, we cannot use our identities as ethical consumers as a “cop-out.” Fighting could result in losing many luxuries we are so accustomed to, but I think this is worth it when we think of the alternative: a dead planet and abused humans.
Many people argue that there are many social justice causes much more pressing than ethical consumption. However, if we want to work on any of those other causes, we must first fix the industrial economy. If we do not, we may soon not have a world or people for whom to fight.

 

Sarah Martin is a freshman in the College.

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