I’ve developed this fear recently. It’s that I die and arrive in heaven (phew!) and when I get there, God shows me all these faces of people I helped to enslave. The man from Eastern Europe who washed my car; the child in south India who stitched together my many, many high street cardigans; the woman in Bangladesh, with hands scarred from dying my jeans. And all the others.
Face after face after face. And I don’t have anything to say to Him. Because, really, what can I say?
We’ve heard it all before. Child labour, horrific factory conditions, unethical clothes … people have written about it over and over again. I’ve written about it.
But there’s writing and there’s acting. And recently, when listening to the wonderful Brett Dennen’s song Ain’t No Reason, I realised I’ve never truly acted. He has this line in the song which says: “Slavery stitched into the fabric of my clothes.” I’ve heard it a hundred times before, but one random Tuesday morning a few weeks ago, while brushing my teeth, I really listened to it. And it stopped me dead. And that’s when I developed my fear.
There is a reason why people in Bangladesh are working in sweatshops. There’s a reason that young children in Uzbekistan are being forced to pick cotton in fields. It’s because we want cheap, fast fashion. And every time I buy something on the high street without thinking about where it came from and who made it, I’m condoning slavery. And I’m kidding myself to pretend I am not.
There’s a reason I am writing this down, too. It’s not because I want to make you feel bad, or because it’s been a while since anyone’s mentioned it and you’re due for another self-righteous lecture. It’s because I want to make myself feel bad. Because, if I don’t say this publicly somewhere, I’ll never be held accountable and I’ll never change.
I get that me trying to quit the high street isn’t going to cure the problem. It probably won’t change anything at all. But I also think that’s a cop-out and an excuse that we’ve been using for far too long. There are a lot of things I could do or not do, that wouldn’t change anything in the grand scheme of things. But if it’s wrong, if God says don’t do it, then that must be reason enough. And maybe that’s how all change starts. Normal people standing up for what they believe in, even when it’s inconvenient.
And shopping ethically is really very inconvenient. I’m not denying that. If I say no to shopping on the high street, does that mean all my clothes have to come from charity shops or hippy websites? Does anyone even sell ethical underwear? Am I going to now be known as the girl who dresses only in hemp? And does that even matter? Do I really care if I don’t look great on Facebook photos and if people think I am a bit odd and don’t want to be my friend?
The truth is: yeah, I do. I am a massive people-pleaser. I hate it when people don’t like me – even when, deep down, I struggle with them too. I want to be normal, to look nice, to be cool.
But I also want to care about that less than I do about the people I’m hurting while I live the way I am. And I know clothes are just one tiny part of the big, giant mess our world is in, where people and the planet are exploited for cheap everything – phones, fuel, food – but you’ve got to start somewhere.
We think about slavery and how amazing it is that Christians played a part in abolishing it. We celebrate people like William Wilberforce, William Knibb – so many Williams (Will.I.Am, for all I know) – for speaking out, and standing against the slave trade. And rightly so. But what am I doing to abolish slavery today?
So, this is me saying I am going to try to change. I am going to stop buying into the slave trade. I am going to research and strive not to put one more pound of my money into fashion labels that oppress, abuse, trick, or cheat their workers into working in conditions that aren’t worthy of humans created in the image of God. I would love it if you wanted to join me – and help me!
After all, if we all start wearing hemp, maybe it will come into fashion?