Sweatshops have been in the news for years now and not without a reason. Sweatshops, also known as a sweat factory, is a factory were products are being made by workers of which the human rights are being ignored. Sweatshop workers are being underpaid, make many hours per day, and work in unhealthy and unsafe conditions. Many organizations, such as the Ethical Consumer Research Association, have been trying to make people aware of the sweatshops and campaign against those sweatshops. In other words, they have been trying to make people ethical consumers. What are ethical consumers? And how can unethical consuming be explained? And how does this connect to popular culture?
Ethical consumers are consumers who buy products, such as phones and clothing, which are produced in an ethical way. The ethical way includes, as said earlier, workers of which the human rights and policies are being respected, but it also includes making sure that not too much energy is being used to make a product. Products you may buy that are produced in an ethical way are Fair Trade goods and products that are organically produced. The big question is: why would people still buy $5 T-shirts coming from sweatshops while they know the multinationals and sweatshops violate the human rights and policies of those workers?
This is a very hard question and there are so many parts that have to be taken into consideration, but possibly can be explained by Emmanuel Levinas and Adam Smith. Emmanuel Levinas, who served as an officer in World War II and who is a proud Jew, was captured by Nazi’s and sent to a concentration camp. He was lucky, if you can call it lucky, that he worked as an officer, because this meant he would not have to live with the ‘regular people’ and was in that way privileged. He saw what the Germans did with his own eyes, and after war was over thought about how this could have happened. How can humanity be at a point were entire populations are being wiped out? He developed a philosophy and discussed this in his book Totality and Infinity. In his chapter, the Face to the other, Levinas argues that the face is unique, and it is what we present to each other in our every day life. Levinas states, “The face is a living presence; it is expression. The life of expression consists in undoing the form in which the existent, exposed as a theme, is thereby dissimulated. The face speaks. The manifestation of the face is already discourse. He who manifests himself comes, according to Plato’s expression, to his own assistance. He at each instant undoes the form he presents,” (Totality and Infinity 66). He writes that when the eyes of someone look into the eyes of someone else it creates a dynamic. The eye-contact makes a person acknowledge someone else and asks the question of who that person is on the other side of that contact. Levinas states, “The face, preeminently expression, formulates the first word: the signifier arising at the thrust of his sign, as eyes that look at you,” (Totality and Infinity 178). Levinas also argues that the face is the most vulnerable part of a human’s body and for that reason a slap in the face is very humiliating. Following these assumptions and findings about the face Levinas tries to conclude how it is possible that a wiping out a population is possible and argues that it is possible because people remove the face for a label. The Germans did not kill the face of the individual, Ludger, Peter, Ismael, etc. The Germans killed the label “Jew”. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to compare a total wipe out of a population with ethical consumerism, but this could be an argument for why people do buy those $5-dollar shirts. They don’t see the face of the person that works in a sweatshop, all they see is a shirt with its price tag.
Adding to this argument, Adam Smith’s vision on economic concerns and sympathy could explain it a little further. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith argues about sympathy and how we are tend to feel more sympathized with people closer to us, in our inner circles, and that it is harder to have the same level of sympathy for people who live on the other side of the world. Smith discusses the order of care and concludes that we care the most about ourselves followed by family. He states, “After himself, the members of his own family, those who usually live in the same house with him, his parents, his children, his brothers and sisters, are naturally the objects of his warmest affections,” (VI.II.5 Smith), family is followed by neighbors, your town, nation, and lastly the world. Smith goes a little further into detail by describing how sympathy occurs. He discusses that sympathy arises in two ways. First, people can feel sympathy for one another when we are aware of someone’s circumstances, and image our response. And secondly, when we see someone’s response and we can imagine their circumstances. The problem here is that when buying a shirt, we don’t know exactly how the T-shirt is made, in what circumstances, and were it is from. For that reason, a problem occurs with Smith’s first explanation of how we can feel sympathy for one another. This is the same for his second explanation. We don’t see the responses of these sweatshop workers and for that reason can’t imagine their circumstances. Concluding this paragraph, Smith gives us a couple of reasons why sweatshops are still a thing.
Another addition to the arguments, is given by Arnold and Bowie in Business Ethics Quarterly. Arnold and Bowie argue that multinationals are the culprit, because there are several advantages for multinationals to use sweatshops on the other side of the world. It helps the MNE’s capacity, specialization, reduced production costs, cycle time, and flexibility. With capacity Arnold and Bowie mean that MNE’s can grow their company way faster because they don’t have to focus the production process themselves. Secondly, specialization is a big advantage, since companies can market products that require a skill that they don’t have within their company. Thirdly, companies can look all over the world to find a factory that has the lowest production cost. Fourthly, outsourcing can help companies to reduce the time of turning around products and in that way, it can avoid inventory build-ups. Lastly, outsourcing can increase the flexibility of a company to experiment with other product lines and supplier relationships without taking too much risk. Arnold and Bowie state, “Outsourcing has been especially popular in consumer products industries, and in particular in the apparel industry. Nike, for example, outsources all of its production,” (Arnold and Bowie 226). Nike is one of the biggest companies in the world, and even they outsource everything they produce. These are all reasons for Nike and other multinationals to use those sweatshops. At the same by outsourcing, multinationals are ignoring human rights and policies in order to profit from it, which becomes a problem for those sweatshop workers.
Julie Irwin, marketing professor, psychologist, and writer for Harvard Business Review, gives another reason why multinationals would not want to change the way sweatshops are being used. Irwin writes, “I worry that the pessimism about ethical consumerism gives companies the idea that they should not actively pursue the moral high ground because consumers will not reward them for it. I also worry that consumers will give up on trying to effect change through purchasing, because they believe that the aim is hopeless.” She basically argues that why a multinational would worry about sweatshops if consumers don’t even care about ethical consumerism? Adding to this she writes that if multinationals do what is best for society they have to give up profits, just like Arnold and Bowie discussed. She discusses that regulations by the government would be a better solution for unethical consumerism than hoping the market will fix itself.