I keep reading articles about how ethical clothes-shopping is so easy, and I’m getting pretty sick of them. They’re well-intentioned, but erase the amount of privilege it takes to be able to find ethically-made clothes in your size and price range. Sure, shopping ethically can be easy–if you have a lot of money, a normatively-sized body, and the time/energy to research manufacturers’ practices, which are often not particularly transparent. Even thrifting, which is often held up an option that has a low impact on both workers and the environment, is fraught with ethical dilemmas, from the Salvation Army’s anti-gay policies to Goodwill’s exploitation of disabled workers to the surplus donations that are exported to developing countries, where they put small local producers out of business and destroy the markets for indigenous, hand-crafted textiles.
It’s pretty painfully ironic that if you’re already marginalized, say by being fat and/or poor, that makes it harder to make consumer choices that don’t harm others. Being able to vote with your wallet for a better world takes a lot of privilege–which is why, even though I support ethical shopping, I consider it neither a requirement for activists nor particularly likely to lead to systemic change, as it doesn’t truly challenge existing power structures. If taken to extremes, it can even become a distraction from the kinds of collective action that can actually lead to change.
This all reminds of me a post Sal wrote a while back in which she explained the market realities behind why it’s so hard to find clothes that fit more than one or two of the following consumer expectations: low price, quality construction, available in a variety of sizes, ethical manufacturing processes, and made locally. I appreciate her explanations, but personally, I’m more interested in changing the system. If, under capitalism, clothing made without brutal treatment of workers is a niche market? Then maybe capitalism is the problem. If, under capitalism, clothing that fits the majority of people is a niche market? Again, maybe capitalism is the problem.