A few decades ago it was popular to sport a “save the whales” bumper sticker to let everyone know you were the kind of person who “really cares about things” as you made your daily commute—with its obligatory offering to oil corporations whose leaky tankers were busy rendering whale habitat around the world uninhabitable.
Bumper stickers have been replaced with more subtle and more intimate methods of sending similar “I’m cool because I care” signals. For instance, I had a discussion with a self-proclaimed “hipster” not too long ago who bragged smugly that she refuses to support sweatshops, and buys almost all her clothes at secondhand stores. It may say “Guess” on the front, but she gave her money to Goodwill.
Ah, the irony of hypocrisy. Or is that the hypocrisy of irony?
Let’s think about this for a moment. First, the “Guess” or “GAP” or Nike swoosh plastered across your chest is corporate advertising, so you are a de facto sweatshop sponsor regardless of where you bought the clothes—and the kicker is that you actually paid money to serve as a walking billboard. But even more to the point, if the clothes were originally made in a sweatshop, you are still partaking in the spoils of violence and oppression even if you bought them second hand.
How so, you ask? The clothes already exist. The damage has already been done. Wouldn’t it be wrong for them not to be used to their fullest—especially considering the violence of their origins? (Hmm, a similar kind of argument is often made for repurposing plastic)
So then, suppose that you found a lamp at a flea market that was made out of the skin of a Nazi death camp victim. It is a perfectly good lamp, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste. And besides, you didn’t kill and skin the person yourself. Nor did you purchase it from the person who did. And it really is a good lamp. Would you feel comfortable buying it, taking it home, and displaying it in your living room?
Note: that was a rhetorical question. If you answered “yes” or even if you considered “yes” as a potential option, I have nothing more to say to you.
If you are not a monster and answered no, then please tell me how the secondhand clothing example is any different. If you think that a death camp and a sweatshop are qualitatively distinct things, then perhaps a trip to Bangladesh is in order. Or maybe you could take a tour of a Nike factory in Thailand, or visit the GAP’s New Delhi clothing plant powered by child labor, or Levi Straus’ operations in Mexico or Turkey.
If you agree with me that the difference is merely a matter of degree, then you need to tell me where you would draw the line and say “this much” violence is too much but “this much” I can live with.