If shopping was as easy as picking out something that you like, and can afford, it would be amazing that I could come up with something to say about it every week. Luckily, we live in an era during which anything can be made complicated. Mounting panic over the environment and the exponentially increasing globalization of information have made virtually every industry transparent and subject to scrutiny.
In the garment industry, which is increasingly turning to outsourced labor to keep costs down, sweatshop labor is at the fore of the industry's collection of important problems. Consumers have come to realize that when they pluck an item off the shelves that carries a "Made in [Fill in the Economically Inferior Nation of Your Choice]" tag, that purchase could be fuelling the coffers of a factory owner who employs children, forces workers to live in cramped dormitories on the premises and work 16 or more hours a day, pays employees pitiful wages, or worse—all of the above.
Unfortunately, according to Elizabeth Swager, a volunteer with the Portland SweatFree Campaign, "You can find sweatshops even here in the US," she says, citing findings by the US Department of Labor that suggest 50 percent of garment factories in this country are defined as sweatshops according to the US General Accounting Office's definition. Swager advises shoppers to look for clothing that is union-made, and to research companies who contract with factories overseas—simply because a brand sets a code of conduct with a factory doesn't mean that it is being followed, but companies who employ a third party to monitor their factories have a better chance of successfully ensuring the rights of workers are not being abused.
Needless to say, images of human rights violations can be a pretty big buzz kill when you're just trying to find a nice sweater within your budget. The good news is that people are working to alleviate these problems—and the introspection of the fashion industry is making it an exciting time when innovation is focused on progressive change—and we, as consumers, are part of the process.
The Portland SweatFree Campaign has decided to take the problem to our local government, and they are currently working with Commissioner Sam Adams on a plan that would ensure a sweatshop-free purchasing policy for the city (on contracts over $5,000 and for a minimum of three months in length), and would include third-party oversight to investigate the factories in which products are made. It's a proposal that's easy to get behind, but, as is almost always the case, difficult to put into action. The matter is set to be addressed at a city hall hearing this coming Wednesday, August 29, and those interested in becoming involved can find more information at sweatfree.org/portland.
After all, if you make it a personal policy to avoid buying items that may have come from a sweatshop, why would you want the city using your tax dollars to buy them on your behalf? Moreover, large purchases made by city governments are more likely to have real impact on the industry than your personal budget. Not that you should give up: Swager advises shoppers to buy locally when possible, and seek out stores that specialize in ethically produced products—you get a less worrisome shopping experience, and they get a great marketing angle. And Deborah Schwartz, coordinator of the Portland chapter of SweatFree, also points out the Shop with a Conscience: 2007 Shopping Guide, available at sweatshopfree.org/shopping.
If city hall hearings aren't really your thing, but you'd still like to aid the cause, Foundation Garments (2712 NE Alberta) is teaming up with the SweatFree Campaign for an event called Cement Mixer. Foundation Garments founder Heidi Carlson rounded up some of her favorite designers, and set them to the task of creating a one-of-a-kind piece on the theme of... "foundation garments." Personally, my first thought would be to design some really kickass underwear, but you'll have to show up and see for yourself what the designers came up with. These one-offs from Leanimal, Erhart, PaperDoll, Mizu Desierto, Layers Squared, and Mine Clothing will be sold at the event, with 50 percent of the profits going to the SweatFree Campaign. Additionally, 15 percent of storewide sales will also go to the cause. (Cement Mixer, Foundation Garments, 2712 NE Alberta, Fri Aug 24, 6-9 pm, with complimentary cocktails from New Deal Vodka; SweatFree hearing, City Hall, 1211 SW 4th, Wed Aug 29, 10 am)
Coincidentally, on the other side of town, Olio United (1028 SE Water) is having a grand opening celebration the same night as the Cement Mixer event. They are a store that specializes in ethically produced products just as Swager described, and the party goes late, so add it to the night's agenda. (Olio United Grand Opening, Fri Aug 24, 5 pm-late)
Breaking a sweat: firstname.lastname@example.org