Home / General / You Kids Get Off My Lawn: Old Activist Edition

You Kids Get Off My Lawn: Old Activist Edition


Amy Merrick wrote a piece in The New Yorker about the terrible conditions in the sweatshops that make clothing for Forever 21, a department store focusing on low cost clothing for college-aged women. She wonders why the kids aren’t protesting Forever 21, suggesting the decline in labor unions and their own economic instability as reasons. I’ll get back to this in a minute because it’s problematic, but it then led to a more unfortunate Lindy West piece entitled “Why Don’t College Students Give a Shit About Sweatshops Anymore” that does little but compare today’s students unfavorably to her own activism in college.

But somehow, in the late ’90s, the anti-sweatshop movement managed to get a real brand going. “Not wearing clothes made by slave labor” was the “normcore” of 1999.

I wasn’t even a particularly consistent or well-informed young revolutionary, but for years I had a kneejerk aversion to anything too cheap to be true. Someone was paying a price for those clothes, somewhere. So I thrifted a lot, I avoided the big-name no-nos like GAP and Old Navy and Nike and Walmart, and I justified my few mainstream purchases with a combination of selective ignorance (I don’t know for sure that a child made these $30 jeans) and shruggy pragmatism (I can’t just not wear pants).

It was literally the least I could do; given my level of privilege, it was almost nothing at all. I was lucky to be able to choose where I shopped (plus, it wasn’t like GAP made clothes in my size anyway). I didn’t have a family to support or significant consequences if I exceeded my budget.

But my point is that I’m impressed, in retrospect, by how effective the messaging was in that moment. “Pay attention to where your clothes come from” somehow got through to me and every other dumb kid I knew. And, according to labor activists in 2014, that’s no longer the case.

These articles are not helpful for a number of reasons. First, they are another edition of “Why Don’t You Kids Fight the Power in the Exact Same Way I Did in College,” a line of lecturing pioneering by ex-60s radicals at least by the 1980s and something that many of you have probably run into at some point.

This reeks of romanticizing the past actions through a carefully remembered history that excludes the second problem with these articles. In 1999, there were some college aged students that cared about sweatshop labor. The majority of college students did not care. In 2014, there are some college aged students that care about sweatshop labor. The majority of college students do not care. Now, there were probably a few more students caring in 1999, but not only are college students working today on other issues that students weren’t fifteen years ago, but there are lots of students still fighting sweatshop labor. If anything, this has increased in the past year since the Rana Plaza collapse and sweatshop conditions have again returned to the nation’s attention. Plus let’s not forget why students turned away from this as a key issue–9/11 and the Iraq War turned their attention to American imperialism. Can’t just handwave this away. Students didn’t stop caring about sweatshops. They started caring about a horrible war.

Again, the third problem here, particularly with West’s piece (at least Merrick mentions it), is that there are actually a lot of great stuff going on in the anti-sweatshop movement. United Students Against Sweatshops is a vibrant organization with activists on a lot of campuses doing great work. I talked a bit about actions at USC this spring and other campuses are involved in a wide range of activities against sweatshop labor and exploitation. Sure, there should be more students involved–but it was the same in 1999.

The fourth problem here is that some of the strategies of 1999 West talks about favorably actually aren’t helpful. Telling people to buy second-hand clothing so they don’t support sweatshops does absolutely nothing to help workers. Plus it’s not scalable. Bangladeshi sweatshop labor activist Kalpona Akter has urged developed world activists not to boycott these factories because it just hurts the workers who need jobs. Cheap and easy feel-good activism does not solve problems, nor build solidarity with those fighting for a better life for themselves.

The fifth problem, and West at least nods at this, is that why are we demanding college students go protest for us? Do it yourself! We (including myself) can all do more to fight the terrible labor conditions in the products that we consume. A woman named Liz Parker started her own protest in front of the British chain Matalan because it wouldn’t sign onto a plant to compensate the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse. Everyone can do these things. Quit blaming college kids and go start your own protest.

Sixth, and most important for those who are serious about thinking about how to create actual change as opposed to vague protests, is that the articles ignore why students focused on the creation of apparel for their own institutions and not random department stores–because they have leverage to do so. As students, college administrators have to at least pretend to listen to them and potentially respond. The students have a clear and targeted objective–getting their schools to agree to responsible sourcing. The implementation is always tricky, but the point is that it’s an achievable, clearly defined goal with an endpoint and a group of people in power who have to be at least somewhat accountable to them. It’s a strategic choice that makes sense.

If you want to go protest Forever 21, print off some flyers, stand in front of their stores, and pass them out until you get escorted off the premises. Call the media and let them know what you are going to do. Have a friend take pictures and put them on Facebook and Twitter. Don’t tell college students to do it. Do it yourself.

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  • LittlePig


    “I don’t know any college students protesting” becomes “there are no college students protesting”

    I wish somebody would teach these writers that the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.

    • Walt

      I hate that aphorism. A representative sample of anecdotes would indeed be data.

      • Lee Rudolph

        But mere plurality does not, of course, guarantee representativeness.

        • mud man

          also don’t forget, taxation isn’t representation

      • joel hanes

        A representative sample of anecdotes would indeed be data.

        An hour or two perusing the customer testimonials for $10,000.00 speaker cables, followed by an hour or two with said cables, a signal generator, and a signal analyzer and oscilloscope, would disabuse you of this notion.

      • Fun fact: the original quote was in fact “the plural of anecdote is data”, making that precise point.

      • Another Holocene Human

        “a representative sample”

        and therein lies the rub

        oh, and by the way, good luck with that

  • Bruce Vail

    Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

    Pretty good for first thing Sat. morning. Erik.

    One minor quibble: It’s great when an article like this appears in the New Yorker. It may not be entirely correct, but when the issue is raised in a journal of elite opinion like New Yorker, it’s a win for the good guys.

    • For sure. And it was the Gawker article that was the really bad one.

  • stuck working

    Could not possibly agree more with this post. These people are supposed to be journalists – why on earth didn’t it occur to them to call United Students Against Sweatshops and ask them what they’re working on now??

    • joel hanes

      why on earth didn’t it occur to them to call United Students Against Sweatshops

      Didn’t fit the narrative.

    • Another Holocene Human

      Pick up a phone instead of looking at a lazy first page of google results and someone’s dead 2yr old website? That’s crazy talk!

      It shows you how much of an activist this journamalist was because real activists are on the phone all the fucking time.

      • Another Holocene Human

        Although to be fair the young people do a lot of communicating on facebook direct message.

  • If the idea is that people need to protest bad things made for their demographic, girls to drop out of school after second grade and take up the life of roaming protestors.

    • That’s about the age my mother was when she smuggled food for her family into the concentration camp in Shanghai, China, crawling under the barbed wire, keeping silent despite the pain of the scratches.

      You’re more right than you thought you were.

  • Is it really the case that inexpensive chain stores (though Gap isn’t cheap, not even in the same ballpark as Old Navy) are more likely to use sweatshop labor than more expensive stores? Maybe they are, but $50 pants made well from high quality materials don’t necessarily involve higher per-hour labor costs than $15 pants made sloppily from thin cloth. The quoted part suggests that you can avoid contributing to sweatshops just by paying more.

    • Yeah, there’s not much evidence of this. Maybe when you get into really expensive Italian shoes or something.

      • It seems like just a transfer of snobbishness to a different sphere. If you shop in Old Navy, you’re not just shopping in a place working class people shop, or a place that doesn’t have the most stylish clothes, you’re not only being short-sighted because poor quality won’t last you, you’re obviously supporting sweatshops — but if you wear Juicy Couture, you’re probably okay?

        Also the idea of reasonable prices is kind of funny, if she really means they’re off by an order of magnitude. You really shouldn’t be able to buy jeans for less than $78? Or tank tops for less than $50? $2 for anything that isn’t underwear is ridiculously cheap, but $5 for cheap tops that don’t use any more material than a toddler would wear is pretty prevalent.

      • Yes, that’s the main difference between high end bags/purses/whatever is the handwork that goes into them which cannot be sped up and maintain the same level of quality.

        The knockoff versions are put together on a machine, it’s one of the ways one can tell them apart from the real thing.

        I’ve noticed that Liz Claiborn actually makes mens’ shirts that conform well to the upper body proportions of an average male. They’re made in the Philippines. I must ask my noble spouse about sweatshops back there. They probably pay small children to fold and pack the finished products.

        • Aimai

          As I understand it with the exception of absolutely hand made, one off luxury things most of the high priced “luxury” items are made in the exact same sweatshops as the other crap. They charge more for the name but not really for the workmanship and certainly the extra value is not passed on to the worker. Also its possible for something hugely expensive, women’s high quality bras come to mind, to be made in abusive, sweatshop, conditions.

          • This is an example of how the high end stuff is produced:

            Hermès does not hire just anyone to work in the ateliers. Most of the artisans come from a school in Paris called the École Grégoire-Ferrandi, which specialises in saddle-making and other traditional leather skills. Students are deliberately assigned the toughest leather–box calf, which is hard and easily scratched. They train on the saddle stitch, which is used on all Hermès bags, and must maintain good posture while working. The course can last 18 months. If they are hired by Hermès, they spend up to two years in one of the company’s own schools, working on small leather pieces like watch straps and handles. They may also learn to cut skins. After working on these smaller pieces, the artisan can begin on the bag itself, but must have solid experience (up to five years) before they can work with crocodile skin.

            Hermès’s primary atelier is in Pantin, a suburb in Paris, where more than 300 workers are spread over 15 workshops. The artisans wear white coats and aprons, and some of them listen to their iPods while they work, but the room is completely silent except for the occasional bang of a hammer or buzzing machinery.

            • Anonymous

              Right. Big difference between luxury brands and designer brands.

          • NewishLawyer

            There are clothing companies that I can think of that do make stuff in the US and Japan and this is part of the brand appeal along with the design. These brands are expensive to very expensive.

            • Another Holocene Human

              American Apparel built a brand image by putting their factory in LA. Of course the workers don’t get minimum wage, they’re paid piecework, but by being so close to the consumers it was easier for them to get attention when they’ve battled with management over pay and working conditions. The guy who owns it is gross for other reasons and opinions vary on the clothes but they’re decently affordable and durable (not stain resistant, though).

          • NewishLawyer

            There are also brands like John Varvatos which can be pricey and also made in China.

      • Orpho

        I think the boutique-type clothing that’s being referenced is stuff like American Giant, where you pay more because it’s made by folks in the US making a minimum (or, in this case, a living) wage.

        • Another Holocene Human

          There used to be outerwear and shoes made in New England for a living wage but that was the 1990s and I think the last ones finally outsourced although New Balance still tries to make-believe they’re still in Brighton, assholes.

          There are still some continental USA union-label clothing companies that provide uniforms to other union employees. Not sure why this stuff isn’t easier to buy direct. I found the quality was much higher than crap like Red Cap which is made in Honduras. If you want work shoes though there is more than one US, unionized manufacturer. They are better for your feet, last longer, and no little kid was inhaling toxic glue to build them.

          If you want to buy a soccer ball, though, it was made with the tears of indentured child labor. I don’t know of an alternative. The glue is so toxic I can’t even walk into a sports supply store without getting ill.

    • NewishLawyer

      There are some clothing companies that take pride in making stuff in the United States. They can be really expensive though.

      Engineered Garments makes all their clothing in NYC. A shirt can be from 180 dollars or more but it is also a very nice shirt which a lot of detailing. Billy Reid also makes a lot of their clothing in the U.S. but the prices are also expensive.

      Here is a bunch of Engineered Garments stuff:


      Disclaimer: I really like Engineered Garments stuff.

      • Joe B.

        American Apparel makes most, if not all, of its clothing in Los Angeles. I’m not sure how well paid or treated its workforce are though. We tend to fetishize consumer goods that are made in the USA, but often the working conditions and wages are exploitative.

  • DrDick

    This kind of article is just stupid and assumes things that never existed. I was in college in the early 70s and hardly anyone was protesting these kinds of things then. Except for the anti-war and civil rights movements, I do not think there was ever more than a small minority of people actively engaged in protesting anything during my lifetime. Both of those pretty much disappeared in the 70s.

    I think part of the problem is with media coverage of these movements. Radical environmentalist groups, like ELF and Earth First or Green Peace make headlines, though their numbers are small, as do things like the Occupy movement. On the other hand, the much larger protests against the Iraq War or immigration reform get almost none.

    • Hob

      I was in college twice, once in the early ’90s and once in the late ’90s (bad planning, dropped out & started a different undergraduate degree pretty much from scratch); first at an expensive lefty private school, then at CUNY. I never, ever heard anyone talking about sweatshop labor. When Lindy West says “‘Pay attention to where your clothes come from’ somehow got through to me and every other dumb kid I knew” and praises “how effective the messaging was,” all I can say is I have no idea what messaging she’s talking about. Literally every student protest I’ve ever seen was about war, foreign policy, or local politics.

      • marijane

        I wonder if it’s a regional thing. West grew up in Seattle, and having lived there seven years myself, I can believe one might get more exposure to that kind of message in that part of the country.

        I spent the 90s in South Dakota, during my highschool and undergrad years. There, the message I got was “Buy American” and it had more to do with reactionary nationalism than sweatshop labor.

    • Anonymous

      I’ve even seen some estimates that only about 10-15% of college students participated even in a single anti-war protest. Not sure of the validity of that number, but both the 21-29 and college-educated demographics supported the war more than older and less educated groups.

      • This would not surprise me at all.

      • Lee Rudolph

        My only college-age demonstration (in 1969) was in favor of coeducation (which did arrive the next year; I’m sure the trustees were sublimely uninterested in student opinion, however).

        My first anti-war demonstration, a bit later and a few states away, was also John Kenneth Galbraith’s first, or so he told the crowd.

      • DrDick

        That would not surprise me. I doubt that anything other than the war and civil rights ever garnered as much as 5% active support. The notion that students are, in general, politically engaged and active is simply wrong, as well represented in their lack of participation in elections, which ultimately matter more than protests.

        • And it’s worth remembering that for most students, the real issue with Vietnam was the draft. Once they weren’t affected, war protest attendance fell sharply.

  • Murc

    First, they are another edition of “Why Don’t You Kids Fight the Power in the Exact Same Way I Did in College,” a line of lecturing pioneering by ex-60s radicals at least by the 1980s and something that many of you have probably run into at some point.

    “Why Don’t You Kids Fight the Power in the Exact Same Way I Did in College” is the latest, most annoying track from the ongoing conceptual album, “Today’s Generation Of Young People Is Uniquely Deficient Compared to Previous Generations.”

    Other platinum singles from that album include “Nobody Matures Anymore, I’m Surrounded By Man-Children,” “These People Are Afraid To Grow Up,” and “What This Generation Needs Is a Great Struggle That Should Be Similar To But Not As Awesome As The Great Struggle Of My Own Youth.”

    It’s a really bad album, honestly, but it has been selling for for five thousand years now.

    • Lord Rust

      Don’t forget “That’s Not Music, It’s Just Noise” and “It All Went to Hell When That One Dance was Invented.”

      • Hogan

        I guess I’ve had worse nymfails.

      • “My memory of my youth is 100% perfect and not at all warped by time and the subconscious editing that everyone does to defend their ego, therefore it is a fact that I was better than you.”

        “Where are you going? I’m not done listing your faults!” And on the B side – “Why won’t kids today listen to a thing we say?”

        Yes I said B side. Get off my lawn.

      • DrDick

        Well, to be honest, your music really does suck. /old codger get off my lawn!

      • Tristan

        By remarkable coincidence, all the greatest music, film, and fashion, in the total history of mankind, was all produced during a period that coincided exactly with the span of time between my fourteenth and twenty-sixth birthdays, after which all those fields (and several others!) of human endeavour plummeted in quality with unprecedented rapidity, and continue on this trajectory to this day.

        Funny, that.

    • DocAmazing

      a line of lecturing pioneering by ex-60s radicals at least by the 1980s

      I know old ’60s radicals who report being subjected to that line of lecturing by Old Leftists. I didn’t get a chance to ask the Old Leftists about haw they were hectored back in the day.

      • Magatha

        I’m a little young to have been an actual 60s radical, but old enough to have tagged along like an annoying sibling. I remember older folks yammering at the 60s lefties about how their ideas were all well and good, but how come they didn’t have a blueprint for your revolution, and the youngsters kept sneering about not needing any stupid old-fashioned blueprint, like the revolution was going to make itself. At some point in every generation, a lot of people start waking up and going “Ow, damn!” because their hearts have been broken. Happens every time. Then we see what we’re made of. And I don’t even know what to say.

      • NewishLawyer

        Arguing the World covers a lot of explosive arguments between Irving Howe and Tom Hayden especially one where Irving Howe kept pounding at Hayden on “Can you love a fascist, Tom?” And Hayden said yes.

        FWIW, I generally am on the side of Irving Howe over Tom Hayden. Everything old is new again and the like.

        • I was in Haydens’ group CED when it was supported by not just donations but the royalties from the fitness videos his then-wife Jane Fonda made in the early to mid-80s. It was a cool, if underpaying organization. I ran into Margo Kidder at one conference needing to find the bus to take her down the mountain, and chatted her up politely about her acting.

          When my friends who saw us asked me what we spoke about, I told them I invited her to go to the Calgary Stampede later that summer.

  • Johnny Sack

    Jezebel covered this and a disappointing amount of people were talking about price. People want their cheap shit, generally speaking. It would be a shame if my low end dress shirts jumped from $30-50 a piece to over $100, but that’s the price of not using slave or borderline slave labor. I ain’t exactly swimming in dough but I don’t have the right to exploit people to save money.

    I guess I can’t blame people for going with what’s cheap over what’s ethical when they’re broke. The solution is to take the choice of whether or not to shop ethically entirely out of the consumer’s hands with tighter regulations and stronger labor conditions here and abroad. Like that’s ever going to happen…

    • This. I’m sure there were many Serious People who argued that ending slavery in the U.S. would cause prices to rise.

      But I also wish people would consider what they’re getting “cheap.” To riff on the Sam Vimes economic theory of boots, a $30 dollar shirt that loses its shape and starts to fray after a couple of washings costs a lot more than a $100 shirt that lasts through years of washings and wearings.

      Of course you aren’t supposed to wear the same shirt that long or you will be Uncool. Maybe one day Loomis will treat us to his thoughts on the role the ready-to-wear industry and modern ideas about style play in labor/sweatshops.

      • Aimai

        But dress shirts wouldn’t go from 20-50 dollars to 100. Haven’t we been talking about this? The cost of goods not produced with slave labor would need to go up only a few dollars per piece, if the wages went up, to make it a good paying job for the worker. Its the profit that would have to go down.

        • Lurking Canadian

          The statistic I remember was that a pair of Nike shoes, made in Central America, had roughly 5% of its cost from labour, at a time when Nike was paying half the local living wage. So, either a 5% reduction in marketing or profit would have sufficed to pay the workers a living wage. But of course because of “free trade” it was inappropriate to point that out.

        • runsinbackground

          You’d have to change the law (or case-law, I don’t recall) governing minority shareholder rights in regard to decisions effecting the profitability (and hence share value) of public companies then.

        • Its the profit that would have to go down.

          This is why the cost of the shirt would increase.

          The sweat-shop produced shirt is already grossly overpriced at $25. If you could somehow get effective laws that prevent exploitation of workers and enforce them, your friendly neighborhood clothier wouldn’t suddenly become less greedy.

          So the lost profits would be made up by charging YOU, the consumer, more for that shirt.

          • Area Man

            But the seller should already be charging the profit-maximizing price. If they could charge more without losing sales, why aren’t they already doing so?

            The effects of increasing production costs are that prices do go up a bit, but also that margins have to go down. If margins didn’t go down, producers wouldn’t bother resisting higher wages.

            • Warren Terra

              Still, the savings made on labor are often vastly smaller than the money spent on marketing. So, what’s the marketing value of honestly being able to say “this garment isn’t soaked in metaphorical blood”?

    • Anonymous

      Why would you blame poor people to begin with? Sure it would be nice if they didn’t shop at WalMart or Old Navy but their spending on new clothes is a small portion of their budget and total clothing sales. People in the top two quintiles are the ones who can make a difference with ethical purchasing.

  • Hahahaha

    Wow a poorly thought out, self-absorbed Lindy West essay. Now I’ve seen everything.

    • Col Bat Guano

      I hope she didn’t sprain her shoulder patting herself on the back.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    Seventh, back in them old days the anti-sweatshop movement had a hip brand champion in American Apparel, so stupid affluent hipsters could dress super sexxxay while passively absorbing the idea “sweatshops = bad” with minimal buzz kill.

    Then people learned who Dov Charney was.

    • Hob

      Yeah, one of the many weird leaps of logic in the West piece is that after she correctly notes that people may be experiencing a wee bit more economic hardship these days, she concludes that that’s why they can’t afford to shop at “ethical-fashion retailers such as Zady”— which makes no sense if you’re talking about 2014 vs. 1999. In 1999 people who wanted to buy a T-shirt and who cared about clothes sourcing were not buying $72 T-shirts on the Internet; depending on where they lived, they were likely buying $15 T-shirts at American Apparel. And, depending on how concerned they are about Dov Charney’s grossness, they may still be.

      • So I apologize. I was certain you were exaggerating the cost of clothes at Zady.

        What the everliving shit?

        From what I saw of the anti-cruelty, pro-organic movement in the mid 80s, when you tell people they have to buy incredibly expensive products to Make a Difference, it backfires. It makes social change a very exclusive club and then the in crowd tells people they suck because they don’t have the membership fee. Result – They don’t allow themselves to care because they think they can’t.

        But I often suspect that exclusivity is what attracts some people to consumer-driven movements.

        • NewishLawyer

          The biggest supporters of anti-consumerism tend to be from fairly upper-middle class backgrounds or above.

          • Anonymous

            and some astute poor parents

    • runsinbackground

      Now there’s a trolley problem! How many models can Dov Charney assault before we stop buying his ethically-sourced clothing?

  • LeeEsq

    Most college kids don’t protest labor conditions in factories because most people don’t protest labor conditions in factories.

  • …a line of lecturing pioneering by ex-60s radicals…

    Don’t you mean “60s ex-radicals”?

    • Hogan

      Or “ex-radicals in their 60s”?

    • He means the radicals without their own TARDIS, obviously.

  • shah8

    You know, I found that Kalponer Atker interview fascinating in the context of Walmart’s reaction to the Rana Plaza collapse, and the general fight between Walmart and its allies and various European companies about self regulation (Alliance vs. the Accord). Especially since the Accord faction penalizes factories that aren’t up to par and thus shutting down some of the worker’s place of business and throwing them out of work.

    How do you get improvement without penalizing non-improvement, is what I’d like to ask Atker (and I’d disagree about boycotting Walmart vs boycotting Bangladeshi made wares–you can always buy a more responsible apparel maker’s wares sourced in Bangladesh)

  • Anonymous

    Oh, you kids complaining about how the generation before you complains about you doing activism wrong don’t know how good you have it. Some of us (including, for example, me) were doing college politics stuff in the late ’70s-early 80s. Let me tell you how much worse it was to hear from all the late-’60s-early ’70s crowd how disappointing we were.

    • Joseph Slater

      Wow, that was me. I can’t even POST right. . . .

      • Elderly, Near Incontinent, Angry, 60’s Radical

        What have I been saying? Utterly incompetent. Why in my day….

        • PhoenixRising

          In my day, your comment would have been run off on the department’s mimeograph machine at 1:47am after the student with keys arrived to open the office.

    • Another Holocene Human

      I bet you laughed your ass off when early 80s student activist and disappointment Barack Obama because community organizer in chief.

  • NewishLawyer

    IIRC there was a movement during my college days to stop having college swag printed with Champion gear because Champion used sweatshop labor.

    I think they were successful but am not sure but I honestly don’t think that a mass of students rose up in protest either. The Jezebel essay seems to take her circle of friends and make them the university at large which was probably not true.

    • Anonymous

      Champion’s parent company, HanesBrands, did join the FLA but that group no longer has any no non-corporate members.

      The Sweat-Free campaigns were fairly successful in getting ethically produced clothes into their campus stores back in the day but less so for products produced under license through the Collegiate Licensing Company. USAS is focused on issues well beyond collegiate apparel.

    • anthrofred

      Right – West’s privilege is really apparent when you contextualize her college experience, as she went to Occidental, not some massive second-tier state university. While Oxy may not be “elite”, it is tiny and private, which aside from a sort of founder-effect coming from rich/liberal parents means that a small group of activists could have had a much larger effect on the overall discourse at the university. Generalizing out from her experience there to say that students (in a broad sense) don’t care like they used to is just full of problems.

  • e.a.f.

    went to university in the late 60s/early 70s. don’t remember demonstrating anything.

    Now to protesting what is made where or boycotting what is made where, most people today aren’t any more interested in who makes the product than they were in the 60s or 70s. They want less expensive. they want the look for less. At some point someone pays. Some shop Wal-Mart saying they can’t afford to shop elsewhere. Frequently the difference in price may only be a couple of dollars. Give your head a shake.

    Some chains import all their clothing from China. Its getting thinner, shorter, anything to save a penny. The consumer is still paying more. Lot of clothing today wears out, before it goes out of style. Kids don’t wear hand me downs, nothing lasts long enough. It is much more economical to purchase one good item and keep it than to purchase something “cheap” and have to replace it every year. People want lots of cloths. its how we are conditioned these days, so yes, people want it cheap. But really do we need those 10 white t shirts and other 10 in other colours. It might just be more environmental to purchase 5, in decent quality made in a “fair wage” factory and save a lot of closet space.

    Do college students of today protest less? In Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, its about the same as it was in the 70s and 60s, except back then we had huge anti nuclear demos once a year. Students today have a much more difficult time of getting through university. Higher costs, less money. Perhaps all the old hippies from the 60s and 70s might want to take up demoing again. Its not like we’re doing much. most of us are retired.

  • Scott Lemieux

    I’m normally a big fan of Lindy West, but I have to agree. Your point about thrifting really struck me when I read it; as an anti-sweatshop strategy, that accomplishes nothing but allowing you to tell yourself you have clean hands (and, as you say, is only possible if very few people are doing it.)

    • Buying thrift store clothing is the anti-sweatshop campaign version of voting third party so you can say that you aren’t responsible for the actions of your government.

      • Scott Lemieux


    • It’s a rather weird way of getting “clean hands” because it requires someone else to do the dirty work of buying the sweatshop product new.

      • Scott Lemieux

        And, by increasing the value of the products at resale, not only do you not meaningfully have clean hands in your minor way you’re adding to the problem.

        • I used to get into arguments in student groups around this very issue 15 years ago.

      • Monti

        My Pontius Pilatus clothes are polý kompsó.

  • jkay

    She spent ALL her time protesting sweatshops in college. And her generation’s Nixon- and Reagan-voter profile were PERFECTLY leftie. And to take her hypocrisy up to eleven, where are her articles grumbling about her own exploitative industry, the media?

    It strikes me as one of a series of articles meant to justify Millenial oppression and joblessness.

    Remember, too, that Walmart’s what the poor can afford. Or Goodwill, like my wife bought when she was poor.

  • Another Holocene Human


    I just want to second everything you said so hard. I was in college, in a very liberal college heaving with activists, in the 1990s and the anti-sweatshop movement was a total nothingburger. Even her sorry “that was the best I could do in my state of privilege” excuses pretty much give it away. A few upper middle class kids protesting in front of their schools’ official logo gear stores about the slave labor used to produce $40 sweatshirts and $15 ball caps. Is it gross? Yes, hell yes. But back then the movement was new, it was probably not as exciting as some other things going on, I was way too busy working my two fucking outside jobs to try to pay my college bills to be engaged (kids at my economic level go to state schools now, so there’s that), and they offered no alternative!

    I did figure out that Old Navy and places like that were totally gross and awful but there was also my midwestern mother who hated those places because the workmanship was shoddy. We shopped at Sears, until it went to hell. I discovered thrift stores because I had no money and because my taste in clothing wasn’t served by Anthropologie, etc.

    Just like you, I am very impressed by what student activists today are doing in the anti-sweatshop clothing movement but I’m also impressed with what they’ve done organizing to help farm workers, bus drivers, immigrant students, even fighting administrative cronyism at their own institutions. They have taken everything to another level and they amaze me.

  • Anonymous

    Ironically, at the very bottom of this insightful post was an ad for Zulily, a clothing discounter. I did a quick search but couldn’t find a sweatshop policy for Zulily . . . I understand, etc. etc., but just noticed it.

  • Area Man

    So I thrifted a lot, I avoided the big-name no-nos like GAP and Old Navy and Nike and Walmart, and I justified my few mainstream purchases with a combination of selective ignorance (I don’t know for sure that a child made these $30 jeans) and shruggy pragmatism (I can’t just not wear pants).

    Wow, I was a student revolutionary who practiced an activism equal to or greater than that of West. I too thrifted a lot and avoided big name stores (more so than West, I’ll bet). And I even managed to do it without giving a shit, at the time, about sweat-shops or anything else other than getting by on little or no money.

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