by Thavy Duong
In the last few years, I started to cut back on my shopping habits. Sometimes I still go to Target for tights or to HM for $5 sales, but I often get clothes from friends who are getting rid of things, from my parents ( who frequently buy second-hand from flea markets) and from thrift shops and consignment stores. I like to pretend I do it all to be green and fight consumerism, but really, I also do it to save money and sometimes to have "unique" and stylish items that are more prevalent and affordable at thrift stores. For the most part, I think that my actions, however small and individual, make an impact. And that my part is important in collective action. But there are other times when I feel that the problem is so large-- that the systems of oppression engrained in our economic system and social practices are so beyond repair-- that there is no truly ethical way to be a part of contemporary society. Although that sounds bleak, I try my best to navigate within my means to align my actions with my values. But I definitely often feel like a hypocrite. I think that there is a lot more I can do to be more sustainable and ethical in my daily consumption. Aside from avoiding buying new things, I will try to pay more attention to whether other products I buy are ethically produced-- like coffee and chocolate.
I read about a new Canadian company, Local Buttons, that aims to address both environmental and social issues by up-cycling second hand clothes delivered in abundance to Haiti. The company's aims are to bring jobs to Haiti by basing their manufacturing there and reducing clothing waste by recycling clothes. It is interesting though, that they are in a way outsourcing, but with intentions of social justice. After their garments are sewed by locals in Haiti, they are shipped to the US, where they are sold in pop-up shops and an online boutique. I find it interesting that the founders mention that they would have loved to be able to be based in the NYC garment industry, but it wasn't logistically possible because, "Who would sew?" So I'm wondering whether they, like larger transnational companies, feel like it's impossible to be based in the US and stay within a desired price-point, or if they feel it is preferable to go abroad for humanitarian reasons to that they bring jobs to a third world country.
Local Buttons Interview
One of the articles for class, called "Santa's Sweatshop," helped me to understand the process of subcontracting, which many large scale clothing companies make use of in order to maximize profits. What many US companies do is subcontract labor to another country. The company is then able to absolve accountability for unethical labor practices by claiming they were not aware or in control of the labor supplied by abroad subcontractors. Although they profit heavily from subcontractors' exploitation of laborers, they do not take responsibility for it. I see this pattern of subcontracting a lot-- in clothing manufacturing and in other consumer goods. Although it seems obvious to me that companies know very well that they benefit from labor exploitation, laws continue to favor transnational corporations. Although the article ended on a positive note by featuring a list of ways consumers can make an impact (by researching companies' labor practices before buying and by only buying from ethical companies), the problem won't really be resolved without changes in government policy so that laws don't favor corporate interests over human rights. In the film we watched in class about the Forever 21 boycott, the judge initially threw out the case because Forever 21 was not held legally accountable for profiting from exploitative subcontracting.
On page 8 of "Santa's Sweatshop", the paragraph starting with, "What makes the issue so staggeringly complex is that the current system of global sourcing isn't all bad," leaves me a bit taken aback. The authors go on to explain, "today's Third World Nation can be tomorrow's success story. Take South Korea. A decade or so ago, Nike had most of its sneakers manufactured there; now South Korea has evolved into an industrial powerhouse with a higher living standard, and Nike makes most of its shoes in Indonesia and China." (Holstein et al 8) I agree that the issue is very complicated. However, I find their rationale problematic because it seems to implicitly support exploitative labor hierarchies by saying that it could all be worth it some day if those countries become "developed" capitalistically. I guess the ends justify the means? I find their neoliberal lens unsurprising, but frustrating for me, because I see the current set-up as systematically flawed.
In a journal article, entitled "The New Feudalism: Globalization, the Market, and the Great Chain of Consumption," the author describes how free market ideology boasts itself as the ultimate form of egalitarian democracy. It argues, though, that the free market is undemocratic in nature because the vast majority of power and wealth remain in the hands of the few (corporations). And we as citizens accept our oppression because we have a culture that fosters good faith that the free market will take care of everything if left undisturbed (by government intervention). The article argues that free marketology (or neoliberalism) is a regression to styles of Feudal governance, in which wealth is in the hands of the few royal. I think it's an interesting take on our current situation and foreshadows an inevitable growth in wealth disparities if nothing changes.
Duvall. (2003). The New Feudalism: Globalization, the Market, and the Great Chain of
Consumption. New Political Science, 25(1), 81-97.
Holstein, Palmer, Ur-Rehman and Ito. "Santa's Sweatshop: In a GLobal Economy, It's
Hard to Know Who Made Your Gift-- And Under What Conditions." Reader.