COLUMN: Choices matter, even if it’s a T-shirt

NANAIMO – In my idealistic youth, I remember railing against the use of sweatshop labour.

In my idealistic youth, I remember railing against the use of sweatshop labour.

My classmates and I expounded on the virtues of buying Canadian clothing and avoiding items made in places like China, India and Bangladesh.

We educated ourselves – and tried to educate others – on the intricate issues of labour costs and living wages. When that failed to get people to stop buying $10 T-shirts at the local big box store, we trotted out scare tactics and stories of people – even children – chained to their workstations, locked in factories, to make cheap goods for North America.

The trip down memory lane wasn’t a positive one, as it was triggered by the massive building collapse in Bangladesh that claimed the lives of hundreds of people and injured more.

Companies are in full damage-control mode, pledging to stop manufacturing in Bangladesh or promising to improve working conditions for employees.

I can’t help but feel a strong sense of deja-vu. As a teen, if felt like we were making a difference. But the cold reality learned as a adult is that lip service is often the only attention paid to issues that are inconvenient to our lifestyle.

It seems to go in cycles. For a time, we focus on working conditions of the people who make cheap clothing and electronics, and people pledge to research their choices and buy from reputable companies.

Then the economy turns sour, or the world simply shifts its focus to the next big disaster, and we forget the education of the past few years.

I count myself among the latter, as much as it saddens the idealistic teenager in me to admit. Money is tight, and it’s easy to buy the cheap thing rather than the right thing.

The cynicism is coming on like a bad case of the flu.

I’m a big supporter of Free the Children, a Toronto-based charity founded by Craig Kielburger in 1995.

I empathized with the 12-year-old Kielburger who founded the charity, understanding his frustration and the need to do something for workers trapped in sweatshops overseas.

Youth rallies called We Day and a network of charities across the globe call attention to the plight of children not just in sweatshops but also in grinding poverty. These rallies attract thousands of students, feature celebrities, and yet working conditions never change for workers overseas.

We know – or should know – how those cheap goods were made, yet we blindly swipe our debit cards at the checkout.

At the same time, it’s always disappointing to walk into a Canadian-owned clothing store, ready to spend an inordinate amount of money for a quality, made-in-Canada product only to find out it’s made in a developing country.

Makes the trip to the big box store all that much easier to stomach when you rationalize that it’s the same product at a fraction of the price.

Once in a while I do make an effort to find clothing that’s made in a sustainable way, through bamboo or hemp fibre that’s made in Canada to our labour standards or at least includes details as a fair-trade item.

It’s not easy, on time or the pocketbook. At this point, it should be.

Businesses that operated the Bangladeshi sweatshop are promising to reform their ways.

But we’ve heard this before.

I understand why people dedicate their lives to causes like eliminating sweatshop labour, or protecting the environment, or reducing child poverty – no matter how many times we write these stories, the issues return.

Have we such little compassion for the human population that we ignore the plight of others to satisfy our craving for name-brand products?

Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. Perhaps I simply need to try again, to remember that idealism I had in my youth and understand that choices matter, even if it’s just a cotton T-shirt from a department store.