Sweatshops and Shame

With claims that the recent rise in coronavirus cases in Leicester was partly due to 'sweatshop' working conditions in some textile factories, we revisit Maeve McKeown's post from 2017 on this issue: 

Should we feel shame about participation in sweatshop labour?  Most people know that clothes are produced under appalling conditions and that garment workers are paid poverty wages.  And yet consumption continues at a fast rate.

The liberal philosopher argues that individuals can act rationally and do what duty requires, that ‘our goodness (or badness) is entirely up to us’[1]. If we believe this story, it is easy to paint people who frequently purchase clothes as greedy and materialistic, leeching off the suffering of sweatshop workers. But feminist philosophers have long pointed out that people’s actions are constrained by oppressive social norms.

Clothes are loaded with meaning and many people (especially women) are crippled with anxiety about what to wear.  Type ‘deciding what to wear’ into google and 39,800,000 results come up.  A 2016 Marks and Spencers survey found that women spend six months over the course of their working lives deciding what to wear.  Why?

There are multiple pressures on women to ‘look the part’ in all contexts of their lives: work, desirable romantic partner, eligible dater, gym bunny, job-worthy, benefits-worthy (‘not a scrounger’), good mother, school-run ready, professional and authoritative, sexy in the ‘right’ contexts, etc.

Not only is there pressure to conform to different standards in different contexts, but the standards change depending on social group membership.  For women of African descent having natural hair can be read as an aggressive act of rebellion. Working class women can assert class identity or try to transcend it, which is a struggle to afford, or extremely time-consuming to do on the cheap.  Trans people negotiate ‘passing’ according to socially-accepted ideals of male or female, or being openly queer.  Muslim women who wear Hijab can struggle to find employment because they are dismissed as submissive or weak.

Alissa Bierria argues there is a ‘social dimension of agency.’ Individuals act, such as wearing certain clothes, but actions can be misinterpreted by others based on prejudices associated with their social group.  Bierria writes:

‘The social dimension of agency is, in part, defined by whether an agent’s action will be legible to others as she intends, whether she has institutional backup for her account of her actions if there is disagreement or a misunderstanding between her and others about the meaning of her action, and if the agent’s intention is vulnerable to being replaced by some other constructed explanation of her action that conforms to an oppressive schema.’ [2]
For example, a Muslim woman might wear hijab as an act of resistance or expression of faith, but her action is vulnerable to being replaced by a white interview panel who reads it as submissive.

Of course, some people enjoy shopping, and clothes have many positive associations, such as escapism or a way to bond with other women[3].  But many women find shopping a slog.  They don’t want to look ‘good’, they want to look ‘right.’  Looking ‘good’ is associated with self-expression or pleasure. But looking ‘right’ simply involves dressing correctly for the social context, and ensuring one’s clothes are not open to misinterpretation.

Looking ‘right’ also means shopping often and on a budget.  This is because social norms around clothing change as fashion changes. What used to be appropriate in a given context, no longer is. Also clothing needs change over time, such as pregnancy, weight gain/loss, changing jobs, moving to a different climate, or buying clothes for growing children.  Unless a person has the capacity to always buy fair-trade clothes, or the time to shop second-hand, keeping up with looking ‘right’ means buying into a system most people know is oppressive.  Consumers are not deliberately ‘choosing’ the ‘badness’ of facilitating sweatshop labour; they feel they have no choice.
From the consumer side of things, undermining sweatshop labour means not only encouraging people to shop less and more carefully, or shwopping, or only buying second-hand.  It means changing the attitudes and social norms that generate pressure to look ‘right’ in a multitude of contexts.

Revealing the underlying social norms highlights that shaming people for participating in global garment industry is harsh, if not unfair.  Shame is often directed most harshly at low-income people, who shop in stores like Primark.  It is often assumed, meanwhile, that middle- and upper-class people are not dependent upon sweatshop labour.  But this is not true.  Luxury brands like Prada and Gucci, and high-end high street shops like Calvin Klein, also use sweatshops.

Rather than shaming consumers, shame could instead be directed at the corporations that use sweatshop labour.  Brands depend on reputation and are scared of reputational damage.  And there are significant changes that corporations can make. For example, after the Rana Plaza factory collapse, the worst garment factory accident in history, 190 corporations signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord because of public pressure. The Accord requires that factories pay a living wage and allow independent monitoring of health and safety standards.  Progress has been slow, but arguably this is because too much emphasis has been placed on the factories and brands have failed to take sufficient responsibility.

Iris Marion Young argued that consumers share political responsibility for sweatshop labour [4]. Consumers must collectively organise to struggle against this injustice.  This involves publically shaming corporations.  But it also requires challenging the attitudes, habits and norms that make individuals think they ‘need’ new or different clothes for the different parts of their lives.  Clothing norms are not objective facts about the world; they are created and maintained by people.  Change requires talking about oppressive clothing norms, why they exist and what can be done to radically change them.

Maeve McKeown was a Junior Research Fellow in Political Theory at St Hilda's College, University of Oxford in 2017. She is currently a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. She is the founder of St Hilda's Feminist Salon and former co-editor of New Left Project.


1. Lorraine Code discussing Claudia Card’s book The Unnatural Lottery in Code L (2000) The Perversion of Autonomy and the Subjection of Women: Discourses of Social Advocacy at Century’s End. In: Natalie Stoljar and Catriona Mackenzie (eds.), Relational Autonomy, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 184.
2. Bierria A (n.d.) Missing in Action: Violence , Power , and Discerning Agency. Hypatia 29(1). 137
3. Young IM (2005) Women Recovering Our Clothes. In: On Female Body Experience: ‘Throwing Like a Girl’ and Other Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
4. Young IM (2006) Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model. Social Philosophy and Policy 23(1): 102–130.


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