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Don’t Buy Clothes from Sweatshops: Support Companies that Honor Workers

I am fastly approaching the end of a very rewarding summer at Casa Juan Diego. I have spent the last two and a half months basking in the presence of God’s favorite people: the poor. I have learned so much from the immigrant guests and their heart-wrenching stories. It is these stories which have inspired me to take a stand. We Americans want to believe that their sadness and hardships are beyond our control. However, there is a harsh reality we cannot ignore: We are supporting the very evil which oppresses them every time we shop at the mall. “About 83% of all garments sold in the U.S. are now made offshore, as are 80 percent of the toys, 90 percent of the sporting goods, 95 percent of the shoes. The people who make these items largely work in sweatshops for pennies an hour. The companies who commission the work, the famous brand names, buffer themselves from employing slaves and children by using brokers to contract out the work” (“Keeper of the Fire,” Mother Jones,. July/Aug. 2003).

For example, these companies are thrilled to have people in China work 66 hours a week for 23-35 cents an hour. Yes, that’s not a type-23-35 cents. Profits for stockholders of these companies are skyrocketing because “wages account for 10 percent of the retail price of a garment made in the U.S., but only 1/3 of one percent of the price of a garment made in the Third World (M. J.).

You can talk to any immigrant in Houston and he or she can tell you horrible stories about “the maquiladoras (sweatshops). These sweatshops are what drove them out of their homelands. Either, because they could not feed, shelter and clothe their families with the slave wages or because the maquiladoras picked up and left when they found even cheaper labor in some other part of the world. Some may argue that these maquiladoras give these people at least some sort of a job. But a situation of toil that robs you of your dignity and does not even provide for your basic needs is not a job. Knowing this, we can no longer claim to be fully living the Gospel if we buy our clothes at Wal-Mart, or any typical American retailer. We are ignoring God’s calling in Matthew 25. Yes, maybe we give food, clothing and shelter to those who cross our paths and are in need (or $ to charity that does). But we cannot forget our brothers and sisters overseas and around the world. We have to support companies which make it possible for people to feed, clothe and shelter their own families. “So what should I do?” you may ask. That is exactly what I have been asking myself, and I feel pretty small and helpless compared to corporate America, but as Eleanor Roosevelt put it, “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” So I encourage you to embark upon the two-part challenge I have set for myself. Here it is:

First Part

Only buy clothing from thrift shops and sweat-free companies. thrift stores are wonderful for many reasons; they are everywhere, they carry many brands and styles all in one place, they are cheap, and most importantly, they support local business and reusing products. I realize buying used clothing is not that easy for everyone. I grew up going to thrift stores, so it has never been that weird to me. However, my whole wardrobe is not thrift store; there are those occasional must-haves and of course, certain items you just want to be brand new I recently decided to buy 100% thrift store–this includes underwear, socks and my swimsuit. I have to admit this is not easy (thank God for bleach). If second-hand is not your thing, take it slowly-buy one shirt or a jacket, and check out a few different places. There are some really nice gently used second-hand stores out there. Plus, there is still the second option, which is also wonderful, buying sweat-free new clothes. There are not a lot of sweat-free companies, so they need our purchases to help increase demand. The four I have found on the Internet are SweatX.com, Esperanzathreads.com and sweatfreetees.com. These companies provide products from jobs both in the U. S. and overseas that operate in decent, respectable conditions, while upholding the dignity of their employees and paying fair wages. You can learn about these employee-owned busi-nesses on their web sites. Their products seem to be really nice, and affordable, too. Another good resource is Co-op America’s Guide to Ending Sweatshops and Promoting Fair Trade: http://www.sweatshops.org/.

Second Part

The second part of my challenge involves a little more work. I go to Kent State University in Ohio and I plan to fight my hardest to get sweat-shop produced apparel out of our campus bookstore and off our sports players. I realize this is not going to be easy, but now that I’ve published this goal, I have to follow through, and I challenge you o try something similar: speak out against sweatshops, raise awareness (look for recommended videos below), encourage friends and family to buy sweat-free, and rally for sweat-free apparel for your school, your kids’ schools, Little League teams, your companies’ uniforms, church groups, etc. Most labeling and embroidering companies will allow you to bring your own shirts in for the marking-so buy blank tees from SweatX or sweatfreetees and put your logo on those, sweat free.


Sweating for a T Shirt
Life and Debt

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 5, September-October 2003.