Fair Trade Clothing: Keeping Silly in Style


I have critiqued fair trade schemes in the past (here, here, and here), and this week at Values & Capitalism, I do it again, specifically as it relates to clothing.

Relevant Magazine recently published an article on the subject by author Julie Clawson, who attempts to “debunk some common objections to shopping ethically.” Although not aiming to provide a comprehensive justification for such schemes, the article serves as a nice examination point to observe some of the fundamental errors underlying the orientation.

The article tries to “debunk” four common excuses for not “shopping ethically” (whatever that means), which include the following:

  1. Ethically made clothing isn’t stylish.
  2. Ethically made clothing is more expensive.
  3. I can’t find clothing that is ethically made (in all areas).
  4. If I don’t buy ethically made clothing, at least the workers in sweatshops will still have jobs

The most fundamental question, of course, is what constitutes “ethically made clothing,” but the last of these “excuses” (#4) gets closest to the core of the issue.

A sample from the author’s piece:

I am disturbed by the assumption that a worker’s only options are a horribly abusive job or no job at all. Such a view assumes reform is impossible and that conditions can never improve. The call to eliminate sweatshops is not a call to shut down factories (which is too often the path taken by clothing companies caught in unethical behavior); it is a call to improve conditions in those factories. The point is not to destroy jobs and lives but to bring healing to those already broken.

An excerpt of my response:

No. Such an “assumption” is no assumption at all. “Such a view” does not assume that “reform is impossible and that conditions can never improve”; it merely recognizes that such factories are currently the best options in these countries, or are, at least, the best options in the minds of their employees. If these companies picked up and left and their employees were left to beg on the street, would “reform” be suddenly made more possible?

What it does assume is that trying to manipulate companies against their will and instituting arbitrary price targets and controls is counterproductive. It assumes that no company with real-life competitors and sensible shareholders will or should agree to blindly pulling prices out of Clawson’s magic bag. It assumes that buying jeans with materials produced at low costs in Venezuelan sweat shops is more in the interests of the Venezuelan people than supporting an ineffective, inflationary “social justice” cartel or starting a bloody war with Hugo Chavez. It assumes that real economic “reform” and progress is a messy thing, and that America didn’t get to its air-conditioned skyscrapers without its own share of nasty working conditions and low wages (more here).

Above all, it assumes that, in Clawson’s words, “the economics at play here are complicated,” and that changing the corresponding economic systems is even more complicated—much more so than, say, telling self-absorbed Westerners that by listening to their Inner Price Genies they can place a bet for “social justice” and save the world in style.

Read the full critique here.

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  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/167995479701979136 Remnant Culture

    "Opposing fair trade only 'assumes' that buying jeans with materials produced at low costs in Venezuelan sweat… http://t.co/Eh6fONaZ

  • http://twitter.com/chrisingr/status/168026354917453826 Chris Robertson

    "Opposing fair trade only 'assumes' that buying jeans with materials produced at low costs in Venezuelan sweat… http://t.co/Eh6fONaZ

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/168037599317991424 Remnant Culture

    Changing economic systems/conditions is much more complicated than listening to our Inner Price Genies. http://t.co/TiqYje5W

  • http://twitter.com/rjmoeller/status/169143088156131328 RJ Moeller

    Read this great post at @RemnantCulture: "Fair Trade Clothing: Keeping Silly in Style" http://t.co/sJIe9J6a @josephsunde

  • http://twitter.com/josephsunde/status/169146280625438720 Joseph Sunde

    Since when did pulling price numbers out of hat make something "ethical"? My latest post on "fair" trade: http://t.co/90jvGyDv