“Do you still want to buy this shirt?” the display asks. The menu comes up again. This time, the options are “buy” and “donate.” As the music swells, all the shoppers press “donate.”
For a generation now, buying better has been one of our most potent forms of protest. Who doesn’t want to believe that he can rescue Manisha from misery simply by purchasing the right T-shirt? The same idea underpins hundreds of earnest NGO advocacy campaigns urging people to take action against the Swooshtika, Badidas, Killer Coke. It prompted a much-praised John Oliver exposé in which he blasts H&M for selling “suspiciously cheap” clothes sourced in Bangladesh. The only trouble is, this narrative is bullshit.
It all started in the mid-’90s, when anti-sweatshop mania burst into the mainstream of American culture. Naked people chanted outside the opening of an Old Navy, Jennifer Love Hewitt led an anti-sweatshop protest on “Party of Five,” Kathie Lee Gifford cried in front of Congress. Nearly every major apparel brand was, at one point or another, the target of a boycott campaign. Radiohead told its millions of fans to read No Logo, Naomi Klein’s investigative polemic against multinational corporations.
And for a while there, it worked. The major apparel companies adopted codes of conduct, first banning just the most egregious stuff—workers under 16, forced overtime—then expanding to health and safety, environmental protection and social investment. Since 1998, Nike has followed U.S. clean air standards in all of its factories worldwide, while Levi’s gives financial literacy classes to some of its seamstresses. Every company from Hanes to Halliburton has a social responsibility report. An entire ecosystem of independent inspectors and corporate consultants has sprung up, applying auditing standards that are as pedantic and uncompromising as the NGOs advocating for them.
But in the past 25 years, the apparel industry, the entire global economy, has undergone a complete transformation. The way our clothes are made and distributed and thrown away is barely recognizable compared to the way it was done in the ’90s. And yet our playbook for improving it remains exactly the same.
This year, I spoke with more than 30 company reps, factory auditors and researchers and read dozens of studies describing what has happened in those sweatshops since they became a cultural fixation three decades ago. All these sources led me to the same conclusion: Boycotts have failed. Our clothes are being made in ways that advocacy campaigns can’t affect and in places they can’t reach. So how are we going to stop sweatshops now?