How can I tell if my clothes were made by slaves?
A few days ago, I complimented a friend on her beautiful, bold, floral top. She thanked me, but immediately expressed that she felt conflicted about it. It was an impulse buy, and she admitted she didn’t consider until afterwards whether the people who made it had received fair treatment and pay. I had to confess I knew that conflict well. Even though I made a commitment to start shopping more ethically a few years ago, I’ve still been on many shopping trips where I walked away not really sure who made my clothes. My friend then asked a question you might have asked yourself: “Can I really know whether or not my clothes were made by slaves?”
The answer to that question is not as simple as I’d like it to be. Even a little bit of research on the ins and outs of the complex fashion industry leaves my head spinning. It takes some diligence to find out if the apparel we have in our closets was made ethically, which is why we’ve put together a list of five tips to help you determine the ethics of an item as you shop.
1. Ask yourself some questions. Begin the process of shopping by asking yourself questions like: "Is the price of the clothing fair for the work that was put into it?" and "How often does this brand switch up their styles?" This won’t provide a definitive answer to who made your clothes, but it’s a good place to start. Asking yourself these questions can help you consider more closely the clothes you buy, and remind you that there is always a cost, even if you are not the one paying it.
2. Look at the label. Looking at where your clothes were made can also help as you seek to shop more responsibly. While clothing made in developing countries can be produced ethically, and clothing made in developed countries can be produced unethically, this isn't the norm. The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) lists Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Thailand, and Uzbekistan as the most notorious countries for child labor. Seeing that clothes are made in these countries or other developing countries should raise a red flag and lead to more research. And speaking of research...
3. Do your research. If the first two steps raise some red flags about who made your clothes, the internet is your friend! Go to a brand’s website, or Google them, to see if they have any sort of information on their sourcing, ethics, and social responsibility (I’ve found that most brands have this on their website, usually at the very bottom of their page).
More ethical brands will have: detailed policies, reports about sourcing, information about ethical protocols, and details about third-party audits and certifications.
Less ethical brands will have: possibly nothing about their sourcing ethics, very little information, or vague statements that their clothes are made “ethically” – without any substantial data, policies, or mention of third-party audits and certifications.
4. Ask the brand. If the three steps above don’t supply the answers you need, you can always send a respectful email to the brand and ask how they ensure that all the workers in their supply chain are treated and paid fairly. I sent an email earlier this year when I was on the hunt for cute, nursing-friendly clothes, and finally found a brand that seemed to meet my needs. The email I received back had all the hallmarks of a brand to avoid – short, vague statements about their ethics with no facts or information to back those statements up. I was disappointed by the response, but encouraged that perhaps my simple email let them know that ethical sourcing is important to many consumers.
5. Know the tools. Finally, there are some awesome tools that can help as you seek to become a more conscientious shopper. I love the “Good on You” app - it rates hundreds of brands on how ethically their clothes are produced. The Fashion Revolution index tool rates 150 of the most popular brands on their policies, transparency, and monitoring. Lastly, the “Done Good” extension helps as you shop online. It lets you know when you’ve found an ethical brand (and gives you discount codes!), and gives you alternatives when you land on a site that doesn’t meet their ethical standards. These tools may even help you find new brands that ensure their clothes are produced ethically.
So how can you make sure the clothes in your closet weren’t made by slaves? It may seem like a challenge, but don’t let the complexity of the issue keep you from making small changes.The five steps above can help as you examine brands you already buy and discover new brands that are committed to making their clothes fairly. Don’t underestimate the power of small, positive steps; every time you reexamine your shopping habits, purchase an ethical product, or reach out to a brand, you are making a difference.
It is not too late to be a part of the impact!
Right now, thousands of people around the world are taking on the creative challenge of wearing a dress or tie in the month of December. The reason? To bring freedom to the 40+ million around the world still trapped in slavery. Your donation or participation in Dressember 2018 is part of a movement to end human trafficking for good.
About the Author
Erin Flippin King is a freelance writer and editor, loving life in Jonesboro, AR with her husband, Aaron (same name, cute right?) and son, Sam. Erin enjoys dancing like a fool, joking at wildly inappropriate times, spending time in the sunshine, and Dr. Pepper. She recently earned her master's degree in Biblical Studies and Hebrew and shares her writing at erinflippinking.com.