Do Students care about ethical manufacturing?
Generation Y is plagued with the burden of bountiful information, an inevitable outcome of our globalized and interconnected world. More than any other generation, we are conscious of true depth and breadth of atrocities committed on a daily basis, as they are plastered in front of us on every platform imaginable. Unlike the baby-boomers or Generation X, we are simply unable to ignore issues such as the state of our environment, the economic inequality, and even where our clothing comes from. That being said, it seems that we as a generation are perpetually criticized by our elders for being callous in the face of all of this information, because unlike them we cannot hide behind the simple defense of “I didn’t know”.
The past 25 years has seen a metamorphosis in consumer awareness and the broad conversation about how and where our clothing is made. It was the mid-‘90s that saw the anti-sweatshop rhetoric burgeon “into the mainstream of American culture” and the forefront of consumers’ minds (Hobbes, 2015). Celebrities soon joined the conversation, with talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford speaking before American Congress, and the movement increasing its volume. As time has gone on, the conversation and its supporters have been consistently galvanized by sweatshop fires and collapses that kill hundreds of workers at a time, including factories owned by popular ‘fast fashion’ brands. A prime example of this is the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse. The incidence was responsible for the death of over 1,100 Bangladeshi factory workers and disclosed the true cost of cheap clothing by unveiling the reality of lacking safety regulations in the garment industry. With the exception of a few companies working conditions have yet to improve as our attentions have quickly been swept to other issues.
A recent report from Business Insider found that the most popular brand among teens, across all income levels, is Nike. Since the 1970s Nike has been accused of using sweatshops and even child labor in their manufacturing, granting them higher profit margins. Nike has of course responded by installing a code of conduct in their factories, which many criticize for being only internally regulated and lacking transparency and reinforcement. Nike is in no way the anomaly in the corporate world though, and far from it, they seem to be the status quo. The other stores that were ranked as the top 5 brands: youth patron, Forever 21, American Eagle, Ralph Lauren and Victoria Secret, all use sweatshops and have all been embroiled in a scandal regarding their manufacturing at one time or another.
So in this consumer atmosphere, where individuals are becoming increasingly more aware of the realities and prevalence of sweatshops, while simultaneously vocalizing their disdain and objection to such manufacturing practices, there seems to be a disconnect between overarching rhetoric and purchasing patterns; people are disproportionality choosing brands that use sweatshops over brands that openly do not. I went out myself to see if this generation is as callous as constantly described, especially in light of hard evidence that youth are spending their money in droves in stores that are known to use sweatshops. I asked over 100 Canadian high school and university students seven questions about the importance of ethical manufacturing to them.
Cedric Payne’s Slidely by Slidely Slideshow
The question still remains: do students care about ethical manufacturing? The answers we collected suggest yes, the hard data however shows that the youth are still disproportionately shopping at companies that openly use sweatshops and “unethical” manufacturing processes. It must be noted that this doesn’t mean that individuals, independent of youth, don’t care about ethical manufacturing. This pattern is simply indicative of the current clothing market: companies that do not use sweatshops or even manufacture “ethically” seem to be so limited that people patronize these larger brands out of necessity. Almost all stores that are marketed towards the youth, specifically students, are large brands that use sweatshops. This makes it very difficult for students to not frequent them alongside evident economical factors. Some may point to American Apparel as a suitable option for students, but this L.A based brand that prides itself on not using sweatshops is not necessarily the most accessible option for students, considering their basic tank tops start at 25 CAD.
Beyond this it is important to acknowledge that often sweatshops are a necessary evil in developing countries with large populations, countries that would be otherwise unable to employ their citizens. In Bangladesh alone, factories and sweatshops employ 4 million of its 156.6 million citizens allowing many of them to earn a measly enough wage to feed themselves rather than starve. We must consider if these benefits outweigh the costs, as conditions in these sweatshops are deplorable. The environment they create exacerbates pernicious cyclical exploitation instead of attempting to develop alternative sustainable employment, manufacturing and clothing.
All things considered, it is hard to say if this generation is or is not deserving of the cold reputation our predecessors give us. We, as everyone who has come before us and will come after us, are shaped by our reality. We, in our increasingly damaged and globalized world, are shaped by necessity. While many youth care about how their clothing is made they are forced, mainly due to accessibility, to shop at large brands that use sweatshops even if they do not want to.
Peterson, Hayley. “How Teens are Spending Money, What They Like, and Where They Shop.” Business Insider. 15 April 2015
Hobbes, Michael. “Why It’s Impossible To Shop Ethically.” The Huffington Post.
Powell, Benjamin. “Sweatshops In Bangladesh Improve The Lives Of Their Workers, And Boost Growth.” Forbes Magazine. 2 May 2013