Aren't Sweatshops Good For Third World Countries?

“Aren’t sweatshops good for third world countries to grow their economies?”

We’ve all heard this question, and I think it’s time we talk through this a little bit. A quick disclaimer: I am generally conservative economically, but as the founder of Cladwell I have seen many of the evils of the fashion industry and what it has done to the environment and workers. 

Okay, so here’s the argument I most often hear regarding sweatshops:

“Yes, sweatshops and child labor are sad but are necessary to develop a third world country.”

Typically, the arguments are as follows:

  1. Competition will raise standards over time: We’ve seen in China that wages and working conditions have risen as more companies compete for the low-wage workers. The same will happen in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Nigeria over time. It is sad now but over time it will get better.

  2. The workers are joining freely, and this is the worker’s best option: When we look at what these sweatshop workers were doing before the factory came, we see how terrible their working conditions were before --whether in prostitution or in dangerous environments in rice fields. Yes, it is sad that the factories are dangerous, but it isn’t really different.

Here is my response:

I think these are economically valid arguments. In the long run--in the macro--we will see wages and conditions improve if we start at sweatshops and allow competition to go through. I’ll concede that point.

However, I believe there are additional (and more important) questions than economic efficiency. The most important being:

“What type of person do you want to be in your 80-or-so years on this earth?”

To Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M: Do you want to be a man who allows his company to continue to do things like kill 21 Bangladeshi sweatshop workers, and who has “plausible deniability” when it comes to child labor?

To Edward Lampert, CEO of Sears Holdings: Do you want to be a man who allows his company to lock fire exit doors and force workers back to their desk when the fire alarm went off, killing 117 people and injuring over 200?

To Ashley Brooke, YouTuber: Do you want to be a person who gets views out of “hauling” piles of clothes made by kids, promoting a consumption pattern in our society that will make the problem even worse?

What kind of People do we want to be?

To you, me, all of us: Do we want to be people who wear the last item of clothing a human being ever touched before their factory collapsed?  Do we want to be people who value having a new outfit that we’ll wear once at a party more than preventing brain damage for the inhabitants along a river in India? Do we want to be people who close our eyes and buy that sequined blouse at Target that can only be made with children’s fingers, because it’s “too hard to find ethical brands”?

Because, guess what? It is economically a valid argument that those worker’s grandchildren (if they live long enough to have them) will benefit.

I just don’t want to be that person.

I’m not pushing for governmental or UN intervention. I’m pushing for ALL OF US--the human beings reading this article--to decide what type of people we wish to be, and spend our time and money according to that. We are not pawns of economic forces. We have a choice.

Ok, I admit this is heavy. And I admit, I am part of this huge problem. We all are. I'm just suggesting that we begin to take steps, even small ones, towards a different kind of clothing industry.


Here’s where we Can begin:

Pause Before You Buy: This is one simple step that could really make a difference. And it doesn't involve spending more money. In fact, it will even save money and the stress of clutter in our closets and homes. If our entire society chose to stop before every purchase and ask, “Do I really need this? Do I LOVE it?” we would buy less. As a result, the fast fashion industry would have to alter its business model. Fast fashion succeeds on its ability to get us excited to buy things we don’t actually love. Just wait. Only buy what you really need or love.

The problem of the fashion industry is huge. But this first step towards changing this industry is something we all can do. This pause, this question before I purchase, is something I can 100% commit to.


The Next Steps:

Get Smarter About Your Wardrobe: Ok, we've made new habits about thinking before we buy items. The next step? Let's get strategic about what clothing stays in our closets. Pick a color palette. Think about your lifestyle - what do you actually wear often? Purchase items based on how well they go together.

Try To Avoid These 10 Stores/Brands: The only 100% sustainable solution is to walk around naked (and even then you still have the problem of methane…). However, some companies are notoriously bad for human rights and sustainability. I'm not perfect in this area, but I'm committing to buying less and less from stores that notably dismiss these issues. When I'm at the mall, I to avoid these stores/brands:

  • H&M
  • Zara
  • The Gap (Old Navy & Banana Republic)
  • Adidas
  • Forever 21
  • Calvin Klein
  • Walmart
  • Urban Outfitters
  • Aldo
  • Uniqlo

Start Buying From These 10 Stores/Brands: The truth is, if you want to pay workers more and provide a better work environment, it will cost more money. That’s why I put this step last. First, figure out how to buy less. Then, once you’re there, start shifting where you buy those clothes. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Everlane
  • Patagonia
  • Zady
  • Modavanti
  • ThredUp
  • Matt & Nat
  • Victor Athletics
  • Cuyana (women only)
  • Bonobos (men only)

If you’re feeling burdened or overwhelmed by this article, I’d like to you to consider this quotation from William Wilberforce, who abolished the slave trade in England:

“If to be feelingly alive to the suffering of my fellow creatures in is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large."

I hope to be a fanatic in this area. And I guess it begins with just buying less. And then buying smarter. And more thoughtfully. This isn't easy. I'm not doing it perfectly. But I'm trying to make a start. And I hope you'll join me.