In light of the building collapse in Bangladesh, the media has turned to the ethics of our clothing trades…again. Clothing lines like Joe Fresh (in Canada) and big businesses like Walmart don’t hide the fact that they buy much of their stock from countries that care exactly zero about human life or, rather, from countries that allow (and maybe encourage?) people to work in dangerous conditions that inevitably lead to significant loss of life. It drew my attention to the little hands that might have stitched together my Coach bag or my Gap jeans and the impoverished Chinese, Indonesian, or Indian sweatshop women that are paid next to nothing to make the things I buy.
When we were on our honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, the bus ride from the airport to the resort took us through a sugar cane field. Our guide told us about the Haitian workers who were hired to work the fields for what was the equivalent of a few pennies an hour—about $36 a month—for 18 hours of back-breaking work a day, if I recall correctly. She quickly rationalized it away saying that the money was way more than they’d ever earn in Haiti, so it’s good for this practice to continue. I was downright horrified as we journeyed through the shantytowns, passing hundreds of hovels covered with corrugated cardboard or steel. But I suppose we’ll tell ourselves whatever helps us sleep at night, like “it’s not like I can do anything about it anyways” or resign ourselves to the fact that the world isn’t perfect and move right along because “their problems don’t affect me.”
I’m ridiculously ashamed to admit that I thought both of those things in that moment. Yes, I was horrified at the injustice of it all, but at the same time I eat sugar. And I own name branded things. I shop at big businesses. And I’m pretty certain that about 99% of my purchases originate in some way shape or form from a developing country. And so do yours. I can’t judge Joe Fresh because I wear it. What can I say? It’s cheap and fashionable clothing made by workers in buildings that have large cracks in their foundations, about which the owners do nothing. It’s those owner’s fault, not mine.
And this problem is so much bigger than I can comprehend. I mean, the way I see it, unless a whole country full of people change their economy completely and all get onto the same page and boycott, protest, or simply stop buying cheaply acquired stuff, this will continue. So I don’t see it changing in the near future. If one company stops buying from unethical suppliers, another will jump right in and continue. And another building will collapse or catch fire, and another hundred or more lives will be lost. So why even bother?
Because our brothers and sisters are suffering. We don’t “get to” ignore the plight of our brothers and sisters struggling with pain and hardship just because the world is corrupt and will remain corrupt. Sure, most of us cannot go and make the landowners in the Dominican pay ethical wages to their Haitian workers, or fly to Indonesia and force the government or building owners to pay attention to the safety of their workers. Yet we absolutely cannot ever complacently sit back on our laurels, as our economy grows fatter and fatter on the backs of the poorest of the poor.
Sure we can’t force change on Indonesian lawmakers, but what we can do is stop wasting the things we buy. We can wear our clothes until they can be cut into rags, and then use them until they disintegrate. We can try to support companies we know support the ethical treatment of the human person. We can financially and otherwise sustain the poor through programs such as Chalice or Canadian Food for Children—where profits aren’t made and the needy of the third world get back the very clothing they’re shipping out in the first place. We can teach our children the importance of ministering to the poor in small yet meaningful ways. We can write blog posts about it and we can pray like the dickens for those daily living in and coping with injustice. There’s also nothing to say we can’t do “bigger things,” like organize a boycott or write letters to our Parliament and Prime Minister to encourage right and morally ethical importation practices. There is a time and place for these actions too.
Mother Teresa once said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” And Mother knew what she was talking about, working in the slums of Calcutta. So the most important thing we can do is treat the poor around us with love and respect and in doing so “cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” We can’t force the whole world to be exactly as we’d like it to be right at this moment, but we can love our neighbours and perhaps change their world in the process.