Why Don't College Students Give a Shit About Sweatshops Anymore?


There’s no better way to change people’s shitty behavior than to convince them that the shitty thing they’re doing is uncool. Everybody wants to be cool! And when I graduated from high school in Seattle in 2000, anti-globalization and human rights activists had pulled off a major branding coup—sweatshops were considered deeply uncool.

It’s difficult for activist movements to bridge the gap between the informed few and the uninformed many—to get affluent teenagers who may never even drive past a garment factory to prioritize the needs of (seemingly) remote strangers over their own convenience—the general assumption being, at least in my experience, that, oh, other people are taking care of it. There’s a white guy with dreadlocks somewhere who knows what to do. He’ll handle it. And besides, I really need this tank top.

But somehow, in the late ’90s, the anti-sweatshop movement managed to get a real brand going. “Not wearing clothes made by slave labor” was the “normcore” of 1999.

I wasn’t even a particularly consistent or well-informed young revolutionary, but for years I had a kneejerk aversion to anything too cheap to be true. Someone was paying a price for those clothes, somewhere. So I thrifted a lot, I avoided the big-name no-nos like GAP and Old Navy and Nike and Walmart, and I justified my few mainstream purchases with a combination of selective ignorance (I don’t know for sure that a child made these $30 jeans) and shruggy pragmatism (I can’t just not wear pants).

It was literally the least I could do; given my level of privilege, it was almost nothing at all. I was lucky to be able to choose where I shopped (plus, it wasn’t like GAP made clothes in my size anyway). I didn’t have a family to support or significant consequences if I exceeded my budget.

But my point is that I’m impressed, in retrospect, by how effective the messaging was in that moment. “Pay attention to where your clothes come from” somehow got through to me and every other dumb kid I knew. And, according to labor activists in 2014, that’s no longer the case.

Amy Merrick has an interesting essay in the New Yorker this week about the reasons why college students—once loud advocates for humane labor conditions—now seem to be more interested in shopping at Forever 21 than picketing it.

The reasons, according to Merrick? Well, for one, there just aren’t as many unions around to teach kids what’s going on:

One reason is the continued decline of organized labor, which has traditionally trained student labor activists and helped to fund their campaigns. In 1995, the year of the El Monte raid, nearly fifteen per cent of American workers were union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; labor unions were instrumental in the founding of United Students Against Sweatshops, in 1998. By last year, only eleven per cent of American workers were union members. With fewer dues-paying participants, unions’ political influence has waned.

Secondly (and, I suspect, most importantly), people just don’t feel like they can afford to be conscientious anymore:

The late nineties—the height of the anti-sweatshop campaigns—marked the second half of the longest economic expansion in American history. Then came a decade marred by two recessions. Meanwhile, tuition and fees at public universities rose, as did student-loan debt. For financially burdened students, ethical-fashion retailers such as Zady, which Elizabeth Cline wrote about for The New Yorker last year—and whose clothes cost ten times as much as F21 Red’s—may be out of reach.

And, thirdly (this one convinces me the least), GIRLS LUV SHOPPING:

A few years ago, reporters began to note the proliferation of “haul videos,” in which shoppers, usually young women, unload their overstuffed plastic bags and lovingly display their purchases. Forever 21 has capitalized on the trend, sponsoring contests in which shoppers post their own haul videos. The winners receive gift cards to buy more clothes.

Merrick’s full essay is definitely worth a read.

I’d like to add, to be clear, that this isn’t a young people’s problem (obviously my generation hasn’t “fixed” the world through our half-hearted disdain of GAP khakis, and girls were plenty into shopping in 1998). Some of the fiercest and most inspiring activists I know are a decade younger than me. You hear a lot of bitching these days about “professional victims” and the “age of outrage” and the “PC police,” but the reality is that—if Merrick’s assessment is correct—not only are teenage Tumblr activists not driving global political discourse, we, as a society, are in fact becoming increasingly permissive about slavery.

No one lives a totally harmless life. I don’t know, exactly, what grade I’d get on my Humane Labor Practices report card. Definitely not as high as I’d like. But if you care about anything, you have to care about this, because how we treat each other is everything. Do you think of everyone on earth as a human being, even if you will never meet them? Can you say, in good conscience, that some people’s lives are worth less than yours? That some people’s children are worth less than yours?

I know it might seem melodramatic to phrase it like that, but that assumption is built into the way that we live—certain people’s comfort comes at the expense of other people’s humanity. We can do better.

Image via AP.

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