By Kendall Silwonuk
Last Tuesday, my Intro to Justice and Peace Studies professor asked each student to bring in their “consumer GPA”. A consumer GPA, as in I’m graded on what I buy? This was new to me. We were tasked with using the site www.betterworldshopper.org to see how the stores we frequent are ranked in terms of human rights, the environment, animal protect, community involvement, and social justice.
Yes, I eat at Chipotle quite often. No, this is not because of their support for sustainable farmers. I eat there for the rice bowls and salsa, like most of my friends. Do I choose buy jackets at Patagonia, or soap at Lush, because of their ethical business practices? No, I buy them because they’re comfortable or because they smell delicious. Clearly, I am not an educated consumer. This is not a fact I’m proud of. I wish I could say that I shop based on the ethical and sustainable practices of a company, but I do not. I want to change this.
There are real people sewing the collars on to shirts I will someday buy. There are real people constructing the chips they will someday put into my iPhone 8. There are real people threading together the intricately laced Nike shoes I’ll want to try on when I walk down M Street next week. The problem is, these real people are not treated by these companies as well as I, the customer, am treated. Some are not paid a living wage. Some work hours which are illegal in the United States, on hot, crowded floors where they are forbidden to socialize with coworkers, for fear by their bosses this will decrease productivity. Some sweat all day to finish the required production number, then are forced to pay for their own water, and are not allowed bathroom breaks. Some, every few months, choose to take their own lives at a Foxconn (manufacturer for Apple) factory in China, as they cannot bear to continue forcibly working overtime in the conditions they face.
It is easy to forget about the conditions of these sweatshops when walking in to the clean, bright Apple Store on Wisconsin. It is easy to feel reassured knowing that I will enter a workforce in a country which will not allow for me to face such unjust working conditions. But in other parts of the world, governments manipulate social beliefs and local laws to encourage women and girls my age to seek employment from these companies.
In her book, Globalization and Militarism: Feminists Make the Link, Cynthia Enloe focuses a chapter on the sneaker industry. Specifically, she discusses the attempts of the South Korean government in the 1960s and ‘70s to convince women that working in the sewing industry was a way to attract husbands and act as a “respectable” daughter and member of society. In this way, the government was able to provide sneaker companies, such as Nike, with abundant and low-wage labor, attracting foreign private investment in the country. It was in national interest to exploit these female workers, just as it was in the interest of Nike to pay these women as little as possible. Similar “respectable daughter” movements have occurred in Indonesia, Vietnam, and China. Women are being abused in factories throughout the world, offered very little pay and few benefits in exchange for extreme amounts of time and energy.
How can I, as a woman of similar age to many of these workers, justify supporting a company which will do this to real people, and specifically to other women? Can I possibly feel empowered working out at Yates, while wearing shoes men and women have sweated over and been so meagerly compensated for? Can I justify shopping at TJMaxx for bargain priced clothing, knowing what these goods have cost workers around the world?
I know it will be hard to become a perfect consumer, in a country so concerned with profit margins and fashion trends. I know I will fail and continue to support companies which do not support those who make their products. But this little exposure I have had to literature on the conditions of those who work to provide for their families by making the things I take for granted will help me. It is important to be a responsible consumer, and I really do want to try.
Globalization and Militarism: Feminists Make the Link, Cynthia Enloe, 2007