Combating Sweatshop LaborThe fashion industry is built upon the exploitation of cheap labor from developing countries. As a result of latent consumerism and a desire to mass-produce clothing for wide consumption, the fashion industry continually employs outside labor to make clothing that is designed to fall apart so consumers keep buying more. These companies often have no regard for the treatment of their workers. A common misconception about sweatshop labor is the idea that it can alleviate poverty. In reality, it perpetuates existing cycles of poverty by only giving workers enough money for food and lacking a long-term solution for eradicating poverty. Many workers in countries like Bangladesh or Cambodia earn less than one dollar per day and struggle to pay bills, despite working more than 40 hours a week. While more brands have committed to moving away from fast fashion practices in recent decades by opening up about where their garments are made, many companies are still using sweatshop labor to make clothing because of its cheap price. According to Camille Segre-Lawrence, “unhealthy and unsafe working environments are paired with low or unlivable wages and child labor….large corporations cover their stories up.” Lawrence is a Textile Development major at the Fashion Institute of Technology and advocates for sustainable clothing production that does not contribute to fast fashion. Around 168 million children under the age of 18 are forced to work in sweatshops. However, three organizations are working on combating sweatshop labor.

National Labor Committee

The National Labor Committee is an organization committed to educating consumers about the horrors of the fashion industry by posting articles on its website. It also provides resources to help consumers trace where popular brands manufacture their garments. As mentioned previously, the enhanced scrutiny by consumers has forced various brands to disclose where and how their garments are being made, leading to increased transparency of their business practices. “The fashion industry needs to recognize that it’s up to corporations to fix these issues,” says Lawrence. The National Labor Committee is doing just that by highlighting the human rights issue of sweatshop labor through articles.

Fair Labor Association

The Fair Labor Association (FLA) seeks to end sweatshop labor on a similar scale by holding companies accountable for the manufacturing of their products through educational resources. However, this organization is unique in that it partners with universities and companies across the country to train workers and encourage schools to buy ethically made products. Many schools like Princeton and Arizona State University are FLA partners, and the FLA’s reach has only expanded since starting in 1999. Organizations like the FLA have increased awareness of the fast fashion industry, leading to a rise in sustainable fashion. Furthermore, many students across the country have started to campaign for ethically made apparel and furniture for their universities.

United Students Against Sweatshops

Also focusing on the trend of outreach, this organization—also known as SAS—encourages students across the US to take action to end sweatshop labor by creating clubs on their campuses. United Students Against Sweatshops partners with the WRC to ensure that suppliers are meeting regulations and using transparency in their manufacturing processes. Over 250 schools across the U.S. and Canada have SAS branches on campus, which further spreads this company’s reach.


The common trend of these organizations combating sweatshop labor is their national scale and specific focus on the biggest consumers of fashion goods: young adults and college students. By spreading awareness about the hazards of sweatshop labor against the trend of increasing outsourced labor, consumers are becoming more informed of how their spending habits can exacerbate poverty and abuse in developing countries throughout Asia and Africa. These organizations are paving the way for developed countries like the US to end sweatshop labor by exposing the harmful conditions endured by sweatshop workers. Encouraging universities and companies to negotiate with large corporations to improve working conditions is a major step in the right direction towards eliminating fast fashion and alleviating global poverty.

– Xenia Gonikberg
Photo: Flickr

You may have never heard of Corporate Social Responsibility or Corporate Shared Value, but you have more than likely come across the products TOMS shoes, Newman’s Own or a slew of other companies who contribute goods to the impoverished with every purchase you make.

Many of these companies have taken advantage of new business models that consider a “triple bottom line,” instead of the traditional single bottom line-profit. A triple bottom line does not abandon the importance of profit margins, but incorporates the importance of social and environmental concerns in their business practices. For too long, international and even local corporations have continued the practice of making money at the expense of the most vulnerable populations, and often simultaneously consume or contaminate the basic resources these populations need to survive.

Wouldn’t it be remarkable if every purchase we made helped alleviate poverty? The following is a brief guide to help you not only understand how businesses can contribute to the greater social welfare of the impoverished, but to help you choose which businesses you invest in. After all, our money is one of our most powerful resources for implementing change.

1. Contribute to Sustainable Infrastructure

Is the business promising to donate 5% of all proceeds to a charitable organization that helps provide education to children in need, or are they claiming to donate one jacket for each one you purchase? There are many business models that fall under the category of “socially responsible,” but very few businesses implement sustainable ones.

Sustainable strategies have the added advantage of not only providing one-time support, but providing the tools necessary for people to empower themselves and break the cycle of poverty altogether. Businesses who invest in programs or initiatives designed to build sustainable infrastructures, which the poor can utilize to better their financial and social circumstances, inevitably end up having a much greater impact.

Such practices as “buy one, give one” models do not necessarily accomplish this. In fact, many companies who utilize “buy one, give one” models need poor people without their product in order to sell their product.

2. Pay Attention to Supply Chains

Earning a living wage in working conditions that respect human rights is essential to alleviating rates of global poverty. However, in today’s globalized economy, it’s hard to know where exactly the product you buy is being made and in what kind of conditions it was produced.

Though the company may be based out of the U.S., the raw supplies may be imported and the product manufactured in South East Asia via numerous factories with no association to one another. Despite the barriers, there are mechanisms available for consumers and businesses to identify supply chains behind the products they purchase to ensure the fair and respectable treatment of the workers who produce it.

Those businesses who have taken the extra effort to guarantee ethical supply chains usually will indicate so on their website. There are also organizations such as the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) who can help you locate such businesses, as well as online shopping sites such as that claim to only allow businesses to operate through their website if they meet certain socially responsible prerequisites.

3. Work with Local NGOs

Businesses who work with local NGOs (local, as in where their product is manufactured) have a higher probability of not only adhering to sustainable practices, but also actually addressing the most pressing problems of that region. If a business donates high-strength eye glasses to a population that suffers from an unusually high percentage of cataracts, the business would most likely categorize this effort as socially responsible.

However, what they might not know is that the high presence of cataracts is largely due to malnutrition. Cooperation with local nonprofits increases the amount of knowledge businesses have about the population they are trying to help, and increases the likelihood that their efforts do not bypass the actual causes of the problem they attempt to alleviate.

During the holiday season there is often a sharp increase in charitable donations. However, using the above guidelines, you can also ensure the gifts you purchase make an equal, if not greater impact on those who need it the most.

– Jamison Crowell

Sources: New York Times, Huffington Post
Photo: Global Envision