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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Your sweatshops aren’t my responsibility

    Alyson Hill columnist
    Alyson Hill

    Who knew being a modern consumer could be so much work? Gone are the days of mere comparison shopping – today’s shopper is expected to have conducted research.

    Which companies use sweatshop labor? Which ones pay a livable wage? Which ones are environmentally friendly? Responsible shopping entails knowing the answers to all of these questions and diligently buying from only the most ethical companies. It’s a pretty sweet deal for corporations – they don’t need to have consciences anymore if it’s the consumer who gets blamed, in the name of the free market, for buying unethically produced goods.

    That’s not what this “”free market”” stuff intends to do, of course. The idea is that consumers have the power to take their business away from an irresponsible or otherwise bad company, eventually causing that company to go out of business or forcing it to change its practices when enough people stop patronizing it.

    It’s not a bad idea, really. It probably even works in a local environment, where everyone in the community knows that Fred the baker is a real jerk to his employees, but Bob the baker isn’t. But the relationship between consumer and manufacturer is dramatically different these days: Now we’ve got vast, faceless corporations to deal with, and they’ve got a lot more consumers to turn to when some of us decide to protest. For instance, remember that hubbub back in the ’90s about Nike using sweatshop and child labor? Their revenues have increased by $10 billion over the past 10 years, and they’ve still got those sweatshops – the outrage of concerned consumers wasn’t much of a stick in their spokes.

    That’s precisely the problem with relying on the free market to keep multinational corporations in check – they’ve got a huge head start on consumers in terms of size and power. The amount of organizational effort required to change Nike alone would be phenomenal: Tens of millions of potential consumers would have to be aware of their unethical practices, and be convinced that they should care about them. Then, lest they run straight into the arms of another corporation that relies on sweatshop labor, they’d all have to do some research to figure out where they can buy some ethically produced sneakers. Lather, rinse and repeat for every single item you want to buy – the free-market approach turns ethical consumerism into a full-time job.

    Speaking of full-time jobs, you’ll need one to afford to buy goods that aren’t produced by the underpaid labor of underage workers – companies that pay livable wages, like American Apparel, can’t sell their goods at Wal-Mart prices. (And, conversely, it is a grim irony that sweatshop workers can’t afford to buy anything but sweatshop-produced goods at Wal-Mart prices. How will the free market help them protest against their conditions?) So unless Mom and Dad are footing the credit card bill, students carving out a meager existence from low-paying part-time jobs are unlikely to have the money to buy only from companies with impeccable reputations, even if they found the time to learn which companies had impeccable reputations in the first place.

    Of course, even if you don’t have the time or money to be perfect, making an effort to be a conscious consumer is better than doing nothing at all. But it would be better still if we abandoned all this roundabout free-market nonsense and focused our efforts at making companies directly responsible for their own practices.

    The anti-Wal-Mart activists have got the right idea: Don’t just refuse to buy from companies whose practices are unethical, join or organize active resistance to them. Write your representatives and tell them to sponsor legislation that restricts corporations from employing sweatshop labor. (Congress, after all, can pack a much bigger punch than you.) Get in touch with lobbyists who can nag politicians on your behalf. Keep using that free market to boycott companies whose practices you don’t approve of, but don’t stop there. Only through the use of organized mass opposition can we really hold businesses accountable for unethical actions; “”free market”” approaches leave consumers to bear the guilt for what was never their responsibility in the first place.

    Alyson Hill is a senior majoring in
    classics, German studies and history. She can be reached at

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