Sweatshops Are Okay If the Clothing Is Cute...Right?

Consumers are more likely to justify buying unethically-produced items if those items are “cute.”

That’s what research from my alma mater, Georgetown University, reported yesterday, citing new research from professor Neeru Paharia and others, who studied the economics, decision making, and moral tradeoffs in consumers’ buying habits. 

Paharia describes how most people believe – or at least want to believe – that our moral reasoning is consistent and not swayed by something as trite as the trendiness of an item. “Consumers engage in what is called motivated reasoning,” Paharia explains, “They change what they believe in based on what they want and how much they like something.” Even when consumers know that a company – say, Forever21 – uses questionable labor practices, we find ways to rationalize our purchases.

Consumers don’t just utilize motivated reasoning to justify our sweatshop-ridden purchases, but we also engage in what is called “economic development justifications.” Paharia explains how consumers “convince themselves that sweatshops are the only realistic source of income for workers in poorer countries” or that impossibly cheap labor “is OK because companies must remain competitive.”

The research tugged at my heartstrings throughout the night as I tossed and turned in my running shorts, the ones with the little swoosh icon that were undoubtedly sewn in a sweatshop overseas. 

But it wasn’t just the research that was keeping me up at night. It was another article I read yesterday, one without fancy academic terms but with a photograph that made me cry out other terms – four-lettered ones.


The blurred figures, fuzzy in the X-Ray's shades of blueish gray, were hard to make out at first glance. What looked like life-size ladyfinger cookies were packed in the back of a truck like sardines, an absurd notion that didn’t register. I let my eyes linger another few seconds, staring intently close-up, then steadily moving farther and farther away as the image came into focus, just like with those magic 3D posters at the eye doctor. 

When the image came into focus, becoming 3D before my eyes, I began to weep. What were packed into the truck like sardines were people – 94 people, including 7 children.

Mental synapses firing with every heaving breath, my memory suddenly recalled another image of people packed in like sardines. But this one was not of a truck, but a ship – the notorious slave ships of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Thousands of men, women, and children lined in rows like cattle breathed, slept, ate, and defecated in the same impossibly tiny quarters. Many perished along the way. Those pregnant on ship were thrown overboard, for after all what use does a pregnant slave have for hard labor in the fields? There was no thought for basic human decency, no consideration of these humans’ shared physical and psychological needs.

But why?

Because slaves are not considered fully human, but a sub-human, inferior species. The first step toward committing unspeakable acts of cruelty toward another human being is to strip them of their humanity. These dark-skinned men, women, and children were no longer treated as fully human, but turned into slaves, the ultimate deprivation of liberty and denial of their fully humanity. 

But why?

Not because God made them that way, but because people God made, made them that way. Fellow human beings turned other human beings into slaves. 

But why?

Because to feed their ballooning greed, they exploited the “other,” failing to remember that God is the ultimate Other. That’s what Paul Tillich and others say, that God is “Wholly Other,” both personal and transpersonal.

But where was God in that truck, the one packed with 94 people like lifeless sardines? 

These 94 men and women gave their life saving and likely more, preparing to enter into a life of debt bondage for the chance, the faint hope, that life would be better outside of their native Nepal or Bangladesh or Guatemala or El Salvador or Honduras. Most of the reports called these people, who struggled for breath and life in their journey, “illegal immigrants” who would be swiftly deported, shipped back home to the countries of origin they so desperately sought to flee in the first place. 

But then there was one report that called them something else. It nonchalantly indicated that this may have been more than migrant smuggling, the illegal transportation of human beings to another country, but could be human trafficking, the exploitation and deprivation of liberty through force, fraud, or coercion. How can we tell the difference when there are so many overlaps between smuggling and trafficking? 

We can look at four main technical differences between the two types of illegal activities [1]: 

  • Consent. These 94 migrants were risking their lives for a better life. Some of them may have willingly consented to be smuggled across the border from Mexico into the U.S., whereas others may have initially consented to be smuggled but not to be exploited through force, fraud, or coercion, such as the trafficker taking away these migrants’ documents, physically harming or intimidating them, or charging exorbitant prices that never can and never will be fully repaid. 

  • Exploitation. Migrant smuggling stops when they have successfully and safely trespassed the border; the transaction is complete. Human trafficking doesn’t stop when they have crossed the border, but rather involves ongoing exploitation of the migrant, such as threats of deportation if the migrant doesn’t pay extra fees beyond the hefty sum they’ve already committed to. 

  • Transnationality. Migrant smuggling is transnational – crossing from one nation to another. Human trafficking is often transnational, but can also occur within a nation, such as the slavery that happens in cities and farms across the United States (yes, it happens here, too), and to a much grander scale around the world. 

  • Profits. The modus operandi of migrant smuggling is to simply smuggle the migrant over the border in exchange for a fee; it is transactional and mutually beneficial, although there may be dangerous and degrading conditions along the way. But the operating principle for human trafficking is to exploit the person in the more vulnerable position – the migrant seeking to enter another country illegally – and to continue to exploit them even after the border is crossed.The 94 people who packed into inhumane conditions in the belly of the truck paid between $4,000 and $8,000 each for the journey, amounts most of these workers will never see in their lifetimes. The average annual income in Bangladesh, where 10 of the migrants originated, is only $840 [2]. How could they come up with nearly ten times that amount? Did it take them more than ten years to save up for this journey, or were they vulnerable to debt bondage as a result of this journey? 

I don’t know. 

All I know is that these 94 people were willing to risk everything for a better life for themselves and their families. 

And I know that in Bangladesh a few months ago, over 1,100 people perished on a different kind of slave ship or inhumanely packed truck – a garment factory. Most of the clothing produced in the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh is connected to the global supply chains that populate our Targets, our Walmarts, our Gaps, our Old Navys – and now our closets.

The Georgetown University study on consumer behavior indicated that most will buy unethically-produced clothing or shoes if they are “cute.” In the wake of 1,100 garment factory workers being crushed in the rubble of Rana Plaza and the 94 human being in the overheated, overpacked truck, I can’t help but want to tear my garments and cover myself in ashes, mourning the deprivation of basic human rights that we’ve justified for cheap fashion being “cute.” 

In my own 18-month-and-counting journey in buying nothing new, one thing has been certain among all the questions I still have unanswered about ethical consumption and global supply chains and finding companies I can trust to not exploit workers--

How “cute” an item of clothing is should never justify the ugliness of slavery.

Photo Credit: Reuters
Note: This post was originally published on my old blog.

[1] See the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for more about the difference between migrant smuggling and human trafficking.

[2] World Bank data on gross national income for Bangladesh (2012, adjusted for inflation).