On November 1st, The Daily Mail broke a rather scandalous story. Ben Ellery reported that the Fawcett Society’s “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts, which are sold at Whistles department store for £45 ($70.43 US), are made by Bangladeshi garment workers in Mauritius who are paid only 62p (97 US cents) an hour and generally work at least 45 hours a week. When interviewed, the factory workers said that they don’t feel like feminists or empowered and instead feel trapped. The Fawcett Society, which works to advance feminist causes in Europe, has since apparently investigated. They countered that the working conditions in the Mauritius factories meet that country’s legal labor standards, but this should serve as more of an indictment of Mauritian labor laws than a valid defense.
Unfortunately, while this case has received a lot of international attention, it’s hardly unusual. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time a non-profit supposedly working to promote human rights or a cleaner environment sold merchandise produced by oppressed workers in an environmentally destructive manner, I could probably afford to wear nothing but organic cotton t-shirts produced by unionized workers in solar-powered factories. In the past when I’ve attempted to bring this to the attention of various non-profits I’ve worked for, I have always been either ignored or told that making their merchandise in a more ethical manner would cost too much. The problem with this argument is that, supposedly, the primary purpose of non-profits is to advance a certain cause, not to make sales quotas. If a non-profit can’t sell merchandise without undermining its goals, perhaps it should get out of the t-shirt/coffee mug/tote bag business.
Some non-profits may fear a loss of funding if they stopped selling merchandise, but the continued success of American Jewish World Service, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, and many other organizations suggests that plenty of good can be done without diverting attention towards t-shirt sales. If non-profits cannot bear to break away from shwag sales or if they think that getting their logo on more people’s backs helps raise awareness, let them pay a little extra for an ethical manufacturing process to avoid well-deserved future embarrassment. Until then, those of us who are feminists, humanists (either secular or religious), or environmentalists can say so with our actions rather than our shirts.