Benefits of conscious consumerism

DO you know where your clothes are made? Are you confident the conditions workers are exposed to whilst making your clothes are conducive to their personal health and safety and they are paid fairly for their work?

Sweatshops are a by-product of economic globalisation. Sometimes factories are owned by private investors or governments of the country in which they operate and their products are exported. Or in many cases multinational organisations move their production operations offshore or 'outsource' work overseas to access cheap foreign labour.

Economists often argue overseas workers employed by multinational organisations are paid better than local workers, that these activities increase employment in developing countries, providing cheap goods for foreign consumption, and therefore everyone benefits.

However, there are also horrific cases of children being forced to work long hours for low wages, enduring unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment, discrimination and suffering from repetitive motion injuries and exposure to toxic chemicals. The most shocking accounts I have come across are in Asia where employees have been locked inside factories during working hours, fires have broken out inside the factories and many have died as they were unable to escape.

Conversely, some workers get lucky and receive higher wages and better working conditions than offered by local employers. Often workers in developing countries have no recourse to the law or social services and cannot risk taking action to enforce their rights to receive fair compensation and minimum health and safety standards. These people need protection - and as informed consumers we can help.

Some children working in sweatshops provide essential income to support their families who live in extreme poverty. However, it's generally acknowledged that children require education as a priority despite the short-term financial benefits of full-time work. Lack of formal education increases entrenched long-term poverty.

Given the negative psychological and physical impacts on children of long hours of factory work, it is unethical to employ children in sweatshops, and by extension we should not purchase these products.

Less clear from an ethical perspective is the employment of adults in similar conditions. If adults are paid above local market rates, is this sufficient to justify the outsourcing and off-shoring activities of multinationals?

Every human has the right to freedom from injustice, freedom to realise one's potential, freedom from physical or psychological coercion. Do these people choose to work in sweatshops, or is the reality of no viable alternative employment a form of coercion? Human dignity is compromised by poor working conditions and unfair compensation for work effort. Research in the United States shows that an increase of 65% in wages paid to apparel workers in Haiti would increase a $10 garment to $10.03. The argument that increases in wages will make these organisations uncompetitive and will increase unemployment is deceitful.

Every full-time employee should be paid a living wage sufficient to buy food, shelter, energy, transport and health care as a minimum return for their labour and no ethical organisation can hide behind local market conditions to avoid this responsibility.

Unfortunately, this exploitation of workers occurs in Australia as well. Many outworkers in our local apparel industry are paid around $3 per hour with no benefits. The 'made in Australia' tag is not a guarantee of zero exploitation.

But there are alternatives. One example is the expanding ethical clothing industry at ethicalclothingaustralia and Ethical fashion is a global movement which aspires to socially and ecologically responsible fashion. This includes issues of worker remuneration, health and safety, and environmental impacts including carbon emissions - without compromising design aesthetics. Many of the products are made from certified organic fabrics purchased from fair trade accredited suppliers, guaranteeing high environmental and labour standards by all suppliers back up the supply chain.

This is a new form of conscious consumerism which avoids low-quality cheap goods made by exploited workers in unacceptably poor working conditions, with no controls over the environmental impact of production. To look good we don't need to destroy something or make someone suffer.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University

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