Magazine article The Christian Century

Shopping for Justice: The Trouble with Good Intentions

Magazine article The Christian Century

Shopping for Justice: The Trouble with Good Intentions

Article excerpt

JULIE CLAWSON needed a new bra. Most of the time Clawson, a Chicago-area pastor, would have just gone to the store, plunked down some cash and headed home with a new bra. But she had been reading about globalization, and her conscience made her wonder where her money was going and what was being done with it. So she decided to try an experiment. She decided to find a "justice bra"--to make a purchase that could do no wrong.

"The bra had to be made from an organically grown material. No synthetics made from petroleum, no pesticides ... and no unsustainable practices," she wrote on the God's Politics biog. The bra must contain no toxic dyes, and it had to be "fairly made. From the farmers who grew the fibers, to the weavers who spun the fabric, to the tailors who assembled it, each person (adults, not children) along the way had to have been paid a living wage ... not been coerced to work, and treated humanely"

Did such a bra exist? After searching for a couple weeks, Clawson found one. An online retailer based in Canada had a U.S.-made organic cotton bra that met her "justice bra" standards at a price of about $30--not much more than she would have spent at the mall.

Most of our clothes--and many other products we use each day--are made overseas. It's not just underwear that raises justice issues. In recent years, the living and working conditions of those making American clothes have come under greater scrutiny.

For example, the PBS documentary China Blue shows what life is like for Chinese workers who make the blue jeans that Americans wear. "They live crowded together in cement factory dormitories where water has to be carried upstairs in buckets," reports the film's Web site. "Their meals and rent are deducted from their wages, which amount to less than a dollar a day."

On a winter day in 1999, Pietra Rivoli, a finance and international business professor at Georgetown University, watched a student protest. A young woman stepped to the microphone and challenged the crowd: "Who made your T-shirt?" she asked. "Was it a child in Vietnam, chained to a sewing machine, without food or water? Or a young girl from India earning 18 cents per hour and allowed to visit the bathroom only twice per day? Did you know that she lives 12 to a room? That she shares her bed and has only gruel to eat? That she is forced to work 90 hours each week, without overtime pay?"

Rivoli realized that she didn't know the answers to those questions. So she decided to find out. While on vacation in Florida, she bought a $6 T-shirt with a picture of a parrot on the front of it and over the next five years traced the shirt's history, a project she describes in her book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy.

She tracked the shirt to Sherry Manufacturing, a Miami silk-screener that printed the design. Sherry connected her with Xu Zhao Min of Shangai Knitwear, which sold the shirt to Sherry. When Xu was next in the States, Rivoli invited him to visit her at Georgetown. During that conversation, Rivoli asked him if she could visit him in China to see where the shirts were sewn, the fabric was knit and the yarn spun. She also asked, "Could I go to the farm and see how the cotton is produced?"

"That might be difficult," Xu replied. "I think the cotton is grown very far from Shanghai. Probably in Teksa." Rivoli pulled out a globe and asked where in China "Teksa" was. Xu turned the globe around and pointed--at Texas.

Asking questions about the relationships between the goods, trade, labor and economics of globalization may produce some answers--but often they create even more questions.

Stories abound of unsafe working conditions, bad food in insufficient quantities, unsafe housing, child labor and low pay Sweatshop Watch defines a sweatshop as:

   a workplace that violates the law and where workers are subject to:
   extreme exploitation, including the absence of a living wage or
   long work hours; poor working conditions, such as health and safety
   hazards; arbitrary discipline, such as verbal or physical abuse; or
   fear and intimidation when they speak out, organize, or attempt to
   form a union. … 
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