Living on a college student budget inherently necessitates compromises, which might be just one reason that stores like Forever 21 and Victoria’s Secret are so popular within our age group. And yet an equal-parts heartbreaking and unsettling VICE report on Wednesday dealt a harsh reminder that sometimes, these compromises aren’t worth it.
According to the report, a German documentary looking inside Latin America-based plantations, pig farms and factories used by beloved candy company Haribo found appallingly dangerous and abusive working conditions tantamount to slave labor, as well as rampant animal abuse. It seems like the costs of the company’s low prices are ethical wages and respect for basic human rights, and this certainly isn’t unique to Haribo.
Just last year, the Los Angeles Times published a report with similar, disturbing revelations about how stores like Forever 21 and Ross produce those alluringly priced $15 jackets and $9 dresses — largely through sweatshop labor practices in factories here in Los Angeles. A 2011 report detailed shameful child labor, among other abuses, within Victoria’s Secret’s India- and Sri Lanka-based factories.
We might all hold certain values and ascribe to certain morals, but to what extent do we have the resources to follow them in our everyday lives? No one is saying that conscious consumerism is easy. Put simply, knowing how to assess a product’s environmental friendliness and being willing to pay more for this, knowing which companies support strong unions and offer fair wages and, again, being willing to pay for this, is a lot. It seems every college student is short of two things: time and money. The unfortunate reality is that an hour spent conducting thorough Google searches for where to get ethically caught fish, a dress made from organic hemp or affordable clothing for which companies don’t exploit children and factory workers is an hour most college students don’t have.
But as for our need for affordable food and clothing, maybe it’s time to rethink our conceptions of “affordable.” For example, a $9 dress that will tear in a month or so might not be the best investment, compared with a one-time $40 buy from a store that uses higher-quality material and offers factory workers decent living conditions and wages. There are economic benefits to shopping ethically and intelligently, and by all means, be motivated by that. But college also marks a time in our lives when we should be looking beyond ourselves, considering the changes we’d like to see in the world and how to be a part of implementing them.
If you don’t support slave labor and severe human rights violations, then don’t buy products from companies that perpetuate and rely on these abuses. Don’t be fooled into thinking that doing so equates to sitting on a throne of pretentious moral superiority, or that spending more on clothes or food equates to a need to check your privilege. Our beliefs have to be more than beliefs — they have to be tangible actions based in how we treat others, how we spend our money and the companies and entities we lend our support to. It’s not a waste of time, nor is it a waste of money. It’s an investment in the change we want to see in the world — change that we’ll only see if we cease to be complicit in labor exploitation.
In either case, a healthy starting point could be looking into online listings of which companies support and empower unions, which stand up for workers’ rights, and where to find these companies near you. A visit to www.getunion.com will substantially cut down your time spent doing research, and give you more time to spend ethically shopping. You’ll also likely find a relationship between companies that are interested in preserving the environment and respecting labor rights and higher-quality, more durable products.
I’m not saying this is the easiest or most economical lifestyle, but change has to start somewhere. Not everyone is going to wind up being a lawyer or policymaker and not everyone’s career is going to be dedicated to fighting for labor rights. But everyone who believes in these values has to fight for them in some way, and for cash-strapped, busy college students, shopping smart is arguably the most convenient.
Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Grab Back,” runs every other Friday.