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What does fashion have to do with social justice? The answers may not be obvious, but, encouragingly, more people are asking these and other much-needed questions about the relationships among style, shopping, and solidarity.

There are many threads which interweave people working in stores and in factories, near and far. Yet too often we compartmentalize and divide issues, creating silos of concern. People interested in making more ethical consumption choices are forced to pit priorities against each other.

This shop emphasizes local sourcing, but this chain has signed onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This brand emphasizes organic and environmentally-sound products, but that is a unionized store where workers get better pay and more respect. Well-meaning people become trapped and conflicted.

But the onus does not rest exclusively on working people, an increasing number of whom are personally struggling with low pay, precarious jobs and underemployment. Individual shopping choices can make some difference, but the reality is that the problems are social and political. Therefore the solutions must also be social and political.

We should not have to choose which priority is most worthy. We should have higher standards as a society. Beyond asking what should I buy and from whom, we ought to ask why we are entangled in an economic model which so destructively prioritizes profits above people’s lives and welfare, and this one home we have called earth. We should be seriously exploring alternatives.

Poverty wages should be illegal, regardless of whether someone is sewing or selling clothes. Fair trade clothes and shoes should be widely available (and other merchandise labeled more accurately as “un-fair trade”). International fair trade agreements could enshrine decent conditions for human workers across borders, and basic respect for animals and the environment. A luxury tax could be also be added to the highest priced items, and the revenue collected spent on redressing the gap between the richest consumers and the poorest workers.

Defenders and promoters of the status quo will dismiss such suggestions as “unrealistic” or “outrageous.” What’s outrageous is that some corporations are allowed to impoverish people and recklessly produce products, while amassing staggering profits for shareholders. No-one should be rewarded for such ethical bankruptcy.

Throughout history, similar criticisms have been leveled at every major movement for progressive change. Plantation owners claimed that ending slavery would cause economic ruin. Women who wanted the vote were dismissed as delusional. People who dreamed of a South Africa free from the racist inequality of the apartheid era were vilified, and their vision was written off as impossible by many.

Yet monumental social progress was achieved, despite substantial opposition, because people’s consciousness was changed, and because they refused to be complicit in oppression. Seemingly impossible barriers have been overcome because people worked for change in homes, communities, workplaces, and legislatures.

We have much work to do to change our collective priorities and the standards to which businesses are not only measured, but held. For example, on the very day the search for survivors of the massive Bangladeshi factory collapse ended, a consultant hired by Target Canada signed into the federal lobbyist registry with this public statement: “Canadian retailers presently have a voluntary code related to ethical sourcing of goods and products from foreign countries. We have an ongoing dialogue with government to ensure that no regulations or legislation are introduced in this area of concern.” 

In contrast, there is a growing ethical fashion movement which is promoting economic and cultural change. And it is not only for the financially privileged. Recently Walmart workers struggling against poverty wages stood up for the rights of Bangladeshi garment workers to have better lives, as well. Inspiringly, Bangladeshi garment workers’ unions have also declared their support for North American people who are resisting greed and organizing for fair conditions. Hope lives in this sort of solidarity.

Injustice is always ugly. Fashion, and the society in which we live, work, and shop, can contribute to greater poverty and suffering – or to greater social justice. Only the latter is acceptable, and there is no economic or ethical defense for anything less.”

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