“Strength and Dignity Are Her Clothing”: Making Ethical Fashion Choices (by Leah Wise)


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today I’m thrilled to share a guest post on an important topic from a very smart and creative person. Leah Wise manages an Episcopal thrift shop by day and crafts posts for her fair trade blog, Style Wise, by night. She received her degree in Religious Studies from Florida State University and lives with her grad student husband in Charlottesville, VA. When not thinking about ethical fashion, she enjoys singing in her church choir and grabbing midweek drinks with friends. 

It’s hard to find a style blog that prioritizes ethical buying, so it’s a joy to have found Leah’s. Today she explains why ethical buying is important and provides some practical ideas for how to do it.   Enjoy! 

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(Cheetah print from  People Tree)

(Cheetah print from  People Tree)

In 2011, I was working at a prominent, Christian-owned craft store (you know the one) when I began to see a real disconnect in the way American Christians practice Christian ethics.

Christian elevator music wafted through the sales floor, store teams were encouraged to open in prayer each morning, and the home décor section featured wall art portraying noble bald eagles soaring above verses from Psalms. Corporate prided itself in donating thousands of dollars to charity every year. I'll never forget the time a woman with a thick Texas accent told me that her home school organization had received a large sum of money from the company the year before. But I couldn't help but notice, on nights when I straightened the shelves or on truck days as I unloaded products from pallets, that something wasn’t adding up. Turn nearly any item in the store over and you’d see it: “Made in China.”

Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” – Matthew 25:45

What I couldn’t wrap my head around was this: How can a company that espouses Christian values also support sweatshop labor? The natural next question for me was, "How can I claim to live like Christ if I continue to buy into labor practices that exploit and dehumanize the poor?"

The fact of the matter is that the global manufacturing system is broken. In the cutthroat world of retail, consumer demand for low prices paired with increasing raw materials costs means companies are eager to cut costs in the only place with a bit of wiggle room: labor. And it’s easy enough to do because, as people in developing countries leave failing farmland to work in the cities, demand for manufacturing jobs increases, creating fertile ground for exploitation. Laborers take what they can get, ultimately being cornered into wage slavery by distant corporations who pretend not to know what they’re buying into. In the best case scenario, entire families go to work and barely scrape by. In the worst case scenario, such as the tragedy at Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013, over a thousand people die when their workplace collapses.

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? – 1 John 3:17

It’s natural to shake our heads and thank our lucky stars that we live in countries that attempt to prevent these types of human rights abuses, but we must not let those initial feelings of pity mixed with personal relief assuage our guilt or distract us from our complicity in the system. No one deserves to live in constant fear that they will not be able to eat. No one should be forced by lack of options to work in a facility that could very well collapse, toppling an entire community in the blink of an eye. No one should ever have to sacrifice themselves in the name of cheap garments sold to apathetic consumers (not to mention the fact that our “first world” societies still manage to fail thousands of their own in this regard). 

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. – James 1:27

We have a duty as Christians to protect the poor, the widowed, and the orphan by demanding manufacturing transparency and redirecting our spending to companies and organizations that treat people with the dignity they deserve. Our collective voice is strong enough to topple the tower we’ve built in the name of consumerism.  

But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Labor rights issues are broad and complex, and we can’t always be certain that a small change in our consumer habits will improve the industry. But that’s no excuse not to try. We may be limited by our financial situations or by a lack of diversity in the fair trade market, but, if we start with a step, it’s quite possible we’ll gain the momentum and the perspective to keep on walking.

Where to begin? There are several options:

Shop secondhand. 

Thanks in part to the Recession, thrift shopping is on the rise (there’s a silver lining for you). Goodwill stores are everywhere and there's bound to be a community or church thrift shop in your area, as well. Shopping secondhand reduces demand for new goods while offering an economical alternative to fair trade.

Buy products from companies with transparent supply chains. 

In response to the demands of socially conscious consumers, many companies are latching onto Corporate Social Responsibility Standards that outline their labor auditing practices, but it’s important to get as many specific details as possible since regulations are only helpful if they’re followed. Companies like Everlane provide detailed information on their factories and their costs so that consumers can make an informed decision before purchasing. In a similar vein, avoid companies that make no mention of their manufacturing practices or are known to have unsatisfactory auditing practices (for example, Gap Inc.). 

Buy fair trade. 

Chevron crossbody bag by Manos Zapotecas via Style Wise. 

Chevron crossbody bag by Manos Zapotecas via Style Wise

Fair Trade, according to the World Fair Trade Organization, is "a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South." Umbrella organizations like the World Fair Trade Organization are effective because they offer external auditing, which helps to ensure reports are generated for the benefit of laborers rather than company interests.

Retailers like Ten Thousand Villages establish partnerships with small scale artisans around the world in order to provide living wages to those with the greatest need while supplying consumers with unique products. 

The fair trade market is growing rapidly and it's becoming much easier to find practical items that you can be sure were produced with regard for worker welfare. 

Change your frame of mind. 

Fair labor means higher prices. This is a given. You can't buy as much as often if you're buying through ethical channels, and that's okay. Buy secondhand when you can and save up for higher priced goods from ethical retailers. Be patient with yourself and others. You can't change everything in a day. Make changes where you can and know you're doing it because it matters, because it is part of your calling. 

Strength and dignity are her clothing,
   and she laughs at the time to come. – Proverbs 31:25

It’s important to remember that human lives are at stake here. Fair trade cannot be a trend or a novelty. People matter, and those of us who stand in positions of privilege must hold ourselves accountable for the ways we continue to profit at the expense of those who do not.

I encourage you to stay focused, make small changes, and do your part so that all God’s children can flourish.

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Please do not hesitate to reach out to Leah if you have any questions or need help finding a particular ethical product. You can find additional information on her fair trade fashion blog. And check out these additional resources:

World Fair Trade Organization
Good Guide
Fair Trade Federation
Ecouterre
The Ghosts of Rana Plaza

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