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                                 Put on your fighting clothes- Mother Jones

jeans button with union made stamped on it
Putting on fighting clothes is difficult, if you suspect that they may represent exactly the opposite of what you are fighting for. Wal-Mart used to promote American made products for patriotic reasons, though that era has long passed. Because Wal-Mart notoriously contracts with abusive factories in Bangladesh, and other clothing chains are not transparent about sourcing, a friend of mine from the States wondered whether she should buy her summer tee shirts from an English source such as Marks and Spencer’s.  However, when she asked me how and where they were produced, I was unable to tell her more than M&S’s corporate line:
We’re only as strong as communities in which we trade. So it makes good sense to be a fair partner by ensuring good working conditions for everyone in our supply chains.
We have around 2,000 product suppliers in over 70 countries and we’re unique in labeling all our products with the country of origin. We also have local buying offices with Regional Compliance Managers in Turkey, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and China.
Considering the multiple tragedies in Bangladesh clothing factories, and the fact that other English chains such as Primark and Matalan, both of which were implicated in the Dhaka collapse, also claim to be using ethical sources, soothing words are no longer good enough.

However, dressing ethically is proving to be more difficult than eating ethically, as Susanna Rustin points out in The Guardian. Buying clothing where workers have not been exploited is much more difficult than single source products such as bananas or coffee. Global supply chains in the garment industry are so complex that it is difficult to ensure that every process from farming to eventual manufacture is responsibly practiced. Even when a tee shirt says it is made in one country, the source material may have come from one place and processed in another before being sent elsewhere to be sewn. For example, cotton may have been grown under less than ideal circumstances using abused migrant workers, and then sent on to be milled in horrific conditions using child labour, before being sent on to sweatshops in the Marianas or some other legally-American-but-not-really location. “Made in the USA” can be a decorative tag to make you feel better, rather than a genuine description of how and where the shirt was produced.

As seems to be common when workplace tragedies occur, people are initially appalled, and then go back to their usual buying habits. The media conspire to encourage this complacency. Blame is often put on specific owners or manufacturers. When the bosses responsible for a specific tragedy are caught and either jailed or executed, business goes back to the same bad habits. As should be obvious by now, the system of global capitalism is at fault personifies blame, while actual responsibility is spread out such that no one has to change. Deregulation and lax government oversight occurs when profit is the only measure of success: in Bangladesh as in any given right to work state, and in the halls of Congress.

Changing this system should be our primary goal, but that will take time enough to educate enough consumers to change a critical mass of hearts and minds.  Until all farm, mill, and garment workers are unionised worldwide, or until governments look after the welfare of their own citizens instead of trying to undercut each other in the global marketplace, the best we can do in the meantime is educate ourselves and vote with our wallets.

The best practice when buying clothing in is to buy from union sources first. While this doesn’t guarantee that the material used was grown and milled ethically, at least the garment makers enjoy some protection. Americans can take pride in their once strong labour movement, and support it when possible, as union made clothing is clearly labelled. This can be difficult elsewhere, as union labelling is not practiced. In Britain, 'Union Made' can be a complete misnomer. The labour blogger Johninnit describes his skeptical reaction to the words 'Union Made' on a Firetrap logo during his shopping trip to the British clothing chain:

As I suspected, the “union made” slogan had only been a stylistic device, and shouldn’t be taken to mean that actual bona-fide union members had been involved at any point during the shirt’s lifetime (I never got an answer on whether WDT had a code of conduct on labour standards for its subcontracted producers). Indeed I was probably the first time it had come within a mile of a trade unionist. The theme of Firetrap’s collection was “Rebels and Renegades”, and the phrase “union made” was presumably chosen for the shirt as it brought with it an instant air of American faded blue-collar glamour – Bruce Springsteen meets Eight Mile.
faux union made logo on Firetrap shirt
Therefore I have listed US websites rather than attempt to find international suppliers of ethically produced clothing. This is only a partial list of what is available. Please feel free to make other suggestions in the comments.

The following websites offer a variety of union made items:

All USA Clothing has a large range of guaranteed union made dress and casual clothing for men, women, and kids.

Union House Apparel lists union made apparel from safety clothing, to workwear, to New Balance shoes.

Union Made is a source for cheap tee shirts.

American Rights at Work blog lists some rather stylish items from Carhartt work wear to Stephen Colbert approved Southwick suits.

The following sites carry items that are not specifically union made, but are manufactured in the US. Read their individual “about” sections and judge for yourself whether the supply chain passes muster. Some of them are quite pricey but, depending on what you are buying, you may not have to buy them as often.

All American Clothing carries casual wear and jeans. They guarantee traceability as to sources.

Hanky Panky manufactures women’s underwear which is completely sourced in the US

Pierrepont Hicks has neckties and high-end clothing for men and women.

Christian McCann/ Left Field: expensive casual wear

Christian McCann/ Choctaw Ridge: ruinously expensive but excellent quality men’s underwear

Rancourt &Co.: men’s and women’s shoes, from reasonable to expensive custom items, made in Maine.

Unis Apparel: general range of clothing made in U.S. from material sourced elsewhere, but supposedly ethically sourced

Good intentions and even responsible purchases will not change the status quo unless you let your circle of friends know what you are doing through personal contact and social media. I know of one woman who has promoted growing pollinator friendly native plants on her Facebook page for several years. This year I see that many of her friends are following her example, trading information on sources and posting pictures. If you’re more outraged about how people are exploited, write to stores like Wal-Mart and tell them how happy you are with the changes you have made in your buying habits, or wander around a store in your new shirt bragging about it to people who are thinking of purchasing something similar. Trust me, they have enough CCTV cameras that someone will pay attention.

Stephen Colbert giving the thumbs up while wearing his spiffy union made suit
Stephen Colbert giving the thumbs up while wearing his spiffy union made suit.

Originally posted to Anti-Capitalist Chat on Wed May 01, 2013 at 11:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions, Hellraisers Journal, and Community Spotlight.

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