Guest Post by Josh Porter
Last year, my friend and professor Dr. Gerry Breshears and I delivered a lecture to a mixed bag of Portlanders around the idea of ethical shopping, sweatshops, justice, and how these things intersect with the way of Jesus. For the most part, the evening was a success; topics were broached, awareness raised, questions asked.
The beginnings of a discussion, as it were.
Over the proceeding year, my own shopping ethic has continued to narrow in tandem with its evolution—many of the relevant issues mentioned in late 2014 having improved, worsened, or else changed to such a degree that the lecture’s content became rapidly antiquated. Thing is, as the conversation around labor ethics and the fashion industry is further dragged into the public sphere, more and more sociologists, journalists, activists, bloggers, filmmakers, and consumers alike are asking whether or not anything can really be done.
If so, what?
Back in July a journalist named Michael Hobbes published an essay in the Huffington Post called The Myth of the Ethical Shopper, highlighting the failure of boycotts to effect lasting change in the fashion industry. In May, director Andrew Morgan released a powerful documentary called The True Cost focusing on the detriment of the fashion industry on not just the developing world, but on the planet itself.
One element that struck me about both pieces was their emphasis on what had been a bit of a blindspot in my own shopping rubric: The myth of a voluntary “code of conduct.” More often than not, these codes, publicized by companies like H&M, Target, and Apple—all of whom I had often celebrated—amount to little more than a clever wash, postured to satiate the conflicted shopper.
Barbara Briggs, director of the Institute for Labor Rights, argues in The True Cost that most companies, be it Nike or Urban Outfitters, can readily offer up a code of conduct pledging to uphold safe factory conditions, to offer a fair living wage, to reject forced labor and respect age laws, but that none of these same companies are willing to offer up these voluntary codes to outside enforcement.
“What we see in case after case after case is that those voluntary codes of conduct are not worth the paper they’re printed on,” she laments in the film.
As a growing crowd gathers around the small window into fashion industry’s dark underbelly, the companies operating therein rush to the dimmer switch. The further we can peer beyond our cheap, disposable garments, beyond even the well-publicized horror of factory conditions, the uglier the view gets.
Toxic waste destroying rivers, landfills that loom over the landscape of the developing world like a rotting monolith. Animals crowded into the most horrific nightmare of birth-to-death agony for the sake of a leather jacket. Villages haunted by genetic defects and mental illness beneath the sweeping mist of pesticide and chemical runoff. All this because shoppers want more, and they want it in rapid succession.
The gnarled root beneath the heinous tree is fast fashion. The conceit for a robust wardrobe that updates annually. A cheap balm of stuff for our own insecurities, our loneliness, our pain.
I’m becoming increasingly pessimistic about my ability to shop ethically with ease or convenience, but I’m becoming more and more convinced of my ability to need less and less stuff. Where I’m currently stumbling about in my journey and learning is, to many, an extreme approach: Whereas I once shopped only at companies with a certain grade or code or public presence of labor ethics, I’ve begin togive them up in order to zero in on an even smaller bracket of smaller, slower companies that make less, sell less, but that offer a window into their production unheard of by the fashion giants that surround them.
A company called Everlane is a wonderful example of this: They have don’t have hundreds of factories, they have 8. Three of them are here in the states, and all of them can be explored in detail on the companies website to a degree absolutely unheard of by a huge conglomerate. A new company in Portland called Age to Come Apparel is working toward the same end for kids.
Of course there are fewer options, fewer items, fewer stores.
More and more, I wonder if our willingness to have less—in particular a simpler and less convenient wardrobe, at least to the American mind—will be an element that affects actual change.
To be sure, a conversation like this one is terribly dense, with a a level of nuance required one can not hope to achieve in a brief blog. The many components necessary to bring about a better and lasting way in the fashion industry won’t be as simple as a new shopping ethic alone, but it is one place to begin.
For those of us that follow Jesus as teacher and Lord, we often imagine Jesus radical rejection of materialism and wealth as something of a stoic, monastic discipline—an affront to the status quo alone. Interestingly, the more I loose my grip on stuff, the more I find myself not only contented with less, but quite happier with less.
Less isn’t just a rejection of things as they are, less is a better way to be human.
Jesus was on to something.