In our history classes at SUA, we learn about the U.S. labor movements of the early twentieth century. We discuss the struggle for rights to unionize, paid overtime, better wages, reasonable hours, and safe working conditions. In the United States today, these fundamental rights are often taken for granted, but in other parts of the world, they simply don’t exist. While there might be legislation in place to compensate overtime or maintain safe conditions, many factory owners don’t have incentive to abide by it, and often face no consequences when the laws are not enforced. Many large western companies continue to support these corrupt practices because they are able to profit off of the exploitation of the workers. As a result, factory owners take more and more shortcuts and perpetuate the cycle of injustice. Because the laborers in many Asian and Central American countries are not permitted to unionize, they can’t make progress to break this cycle.
“It’s tough to browse racks of clothing in a store and simultaneously sympathize with the desperate, impoverished young woman who made them,” says Kate Bachman ‘17. “Our society just doesn’t facilitate this sort of compassion. However, it is our responsibility to think of those that others don’t, and to act with them in mind.”
So what can we do to help?
The best way to combat the maltreatment of these laborers is to choose to support only companies who maintain transparency in their business practices and treat their workers with dignity. When companies lose business, they are forced to make changes.
For students hoping to be involved in fair trade, Kate recommends “researching fair trade or ethical clothing companies that align with your personal style. I found that before I started shopping ethically, I was buying a lot of clothes that I didn't need. Now that I am being intentional about where I shop, I have also thought a lot more about what I'm buying and whether or not I really need it. This has allowed me to buy a lot less, which is ultimately best for the environment.”
If you are involved in a club or a course looking to purchase spirit wear, ask about an ethical alternative; in fact, the 2016 SUA Walk t-shirt will be fair trade. You can also work to increase the dialogue by asking about fair trade alternatives. Next time you are at Starbucks, try to order fair trade coffee. The more that the topic is brought up, the more likely corporations will be to respond.
By supporting a company that treats its laborers well, we are defending those who cannot defend themselves, working as a voice for the voiceless, and pursuing and fulfilling our goals to live as thinkers, leaders, nurturers, and prophets.
In our choice to purchase fair trade clothing, we are leaving a lasting footprint of justice on our society and affirming the dignity and gifts of people all over the globe. We are providing students with opportunities to be involved in activities that are appropriately counter-cultural and that challenge the status-quo. Most importantly, we are empowering students to become women of faith, integrity, and courage committed to building a better world.