Progressive Activism and Cute Shoes: Mutually Exclusive?

I was once a proud member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). While a student at Allentown Business School, I worked in two factories at night, along with other jobs, while also working two full days at a nursing home over the weekend.

The first factory was a union shop. My job was to press collars for ladies’ suits. When that work ran out, my job was to use a seam ripper to undo bad work. After that, I was laid off. It was a fairly nice work environment. There was good lighting and even a snack machine. My supervisor was a little scary, but she rarely stayed as late as I did. It was usually just me and the custodian when it was time to lock up the building.

But factory work is seasonal, and after just a few months I was laid off. I then got another factory job; this was not a union shop. My job was to cut apart knitted ski masks using a table saw. The lighting was terrible, it was extremely hot, there was no ventilation, and I felt lightheaded most of the time I was at work – not a good thing when a saw is so close to your fingers! I quit after just a few days. I felt guilty about doing this, but also knew that I was not strong enough to do such difficult physical work.

Both factories paid the same. It was a piece rate, which I was never able to make (which means I was paid minimum wage). But the difference in working conditions was amazingly different. I’m not sure if it had anything to do with the union, but I am sure that helped. At the union shop, I would have worked for as long as I was able, or at least until I finished school. The pay was not good, but I was given flexible hours to accommodate my school schedule and the environment was pleasant. The other place was just awful. I really felt like I was going to pass out most of the time that I was there.

Yet, I am sure that these working conditions were much better than those in offshore locations where workers, many of them children, are paid very little. It makes me feel sick to think that millions of people in the world have so few options for their life. It makes me even more sick to think that the reason these people are trapped in this economic system is a result of American demand for cheap clothing – and lots of it.

While it is no longer possible to find clothing bearing an ILGWU label, I do try to appreciate the hard work that people put into the clothing that I purchase. I am not at all against offshoring; in fact, I think as a privileged nation we have a responsibility to help other countries develop their economies so that they can be self-sufficient and sustainable.  But this is not what we usually do. We take advantage of less fortunate countries and their citizens in order to strengthen our own economy.

Resisting gluttony is hard, especially when everyone else seems to be doing it without question. But do I really need another pair of shoes?

Shoes are particularly problematic for me. I love them. I often say to myself that I am going to reduce my consumption of shoes and limit those that I do purchase to vegan varieties. I did good this summer. I didn’t purchase the new Dansko shoes that I really, really, really, really wanted. But I know that one day I will purchase a pair of shoes, or some other item of clothing, that I don’t really need – and one that might have been created in a factory with deplorable conditions.

As a consumer, I have a certain amount of power. I can vote with my pocketbook by only supporting companies that align with my values. But I am only one person, and my consumer power is quite limited. It would be far more effective for us to channel our energy – that which might otherwise be spent perusing the new fall collection online – into collectively influencing corporate practices and public policy. Wouldn’t it be great if we could walk into a department store and know that everything offered for sale is made by a company that values its employees and the environment?

I have actually thought about the possibility of starting such a store. I think it would be fun, but with other projects lined up I just don’t have the energy to make it happen right now. In the meantime, I am taking a lot of notes to capture my most innovative ideas for this project. Perhaps one day you will join me at the grand opening of this store!

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