When you sheepishly respond to some kind classmate’s excited “OMG! Where’d you get that?” with “Shein…”, you’re saying you know fully well that you shouldn’t have bought it. What you’re saying is that you’re aware of the exploitation, dangerous chemical exposure, theft of independent artist designs, unbelievable overproduction, lies about labor standard certification, absurd lack of transparency, piles of waste exported to the global South and substantiated reports of forced labor that went into making the uninspired Halloween costume you wore one time. Yet you still decided that your desire to wear it outweighed all that you’ve heard about the company. Come on.
Yes, other fast fashion companies — think Zara, H&M, Boohoo, Fashion Nova — also employ substandard labor practices and poison the planet, but Shein does it at an entirely different level. In a recent year, Zara listed 35,000 different items on its website. Shein had 1.3 million.
Yes — under capitalism, within the U.S.’s car-reliant infrastructure, with laughable minimum wages and flagrant union-busting left and right, there are plenty of exploitative industries and environmentally toxic byproducts that normal people simply cannot opt out of. We should always emphasize a class perspective when the idealistic wealthy criticize others for not being perfect environmentalists or assume everyone has time to be a choosy shopper.
If you live in a remote area and have no access to transportation or thrift stores and can’t, like many people, afford new, name-brand clothing for work, it becomes easier to understand having to resort to choices you would not otherwise make, like shopping fast fashion. But we both know that’s not the situation many of our peers are in.
You, a college student who bought iced coffee and Roots and paid your SkyVue rent yesterday, you whose parents are able to help you pay for college without massive sacrifices, you who live within a 20-minute free bus ride of a number of secondhand stores — you don’t get to take that excuse. Neither do I. Sometimes, poor ethical choices are, actually, precisely within our control. Deluding yourself that it’s okay to do business with human rights abusers because you’re a college student should embarrass you. You should blush when you tell people where you bought your microtrend crocheted crop top that can’t be manufactured by machine. Have some shame.
Our generation, in our justified cynicism toward the systems and corporations that have visibly choked our planet and our loved ones since we were born, has thrown out the baby of individual responsibility along with the bath water of institutional guilt. It’s an understandable reaction, but not one that gets us very far.
If your knee-jerk reaction to someone criticizing your choice of clothing retailer is to say “Well, there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism,” you’ve not only misunderstood that adage but are also obscuring the reality that there are slightly better and worse options even in a system whose ultimate end is to extract labor value.
Becoming aware of just how much unfathomable harm governments, corporate monopolies and fossil fuel industries have done tends to knock a person to the ground. Once you’re down, it can feel impossible to make any ethical choice. It’s a slippery slope from that initial sense of helplessness, though, to a total dismissal of your ability to make any impact that results in giving yourself a pass to go on freewheeling spending sprees on crap you don’t need made by people who deserve better.
We owe ourselves and humanity some nuance. We should blame massive corporations with huge lobbying arms for the U.S. dragging its feet to seriously invest in alternative energy. We should feel exhausted by the relentless pressure to be nebulously better and edge others out that capitalism eggs on.
But a lot of young people talk as if “institutions” are some alien, abstract force entirely separate from humanity that nobody can touch. Yes, in a sense, CEOs and generationally wealthy career politicians are so far removed from reality that they may as well be extraterrestrials. Yet the moment that we start telling ourselves that we as individuals are completely powerless against institutions is the moment they have won. The moment your engineering major friend accepts a job for a defense contractor for the hefty paycheck, the moment you tell some vegan online that their diet is pointless. The moment we accept UPMC taking up more and more of Pittsburgh while paying their employees pennies and still getting taxed as a nonprofit.
We are disillusioned with humans, and institutions thrive off of apathy.
But you do have some power — you really do. It’s more comfortable to use your understanding that wealth and greed are powerful to justify doing whatever you want, but you know in your heart that it’s not right. It’s wrong not only because of the fractional impact your actions have on others and the planet, it’s also because participating in harm beyond what you can’t avoid hurts your humanity. It severs you from seeing any meaning in the world, from keeping any loyalties, from deriving satisfaction at even small accomplishments that improve people’s lives. Refuse to give in to resignation.
If you’re still hung up on the seeming irrelevance of individual actions, consider how practicing more responsible consumption — most simply, buying as few new things as possible — also helps model mass resistance to institutions. Both require self-control and sustained persistence in the face of slow change. Both get us used to setting aside our desires for the protection of others.
I know it’s hard to have any sense of discipline or hope in the face of climate doom, state-funded violence and impossible costs of living, but we have got to try. We cannot give up on each other, and we in the U.S. cannot be blind to the staggering harm our choices do overseas. For college students with any amount of privilege to make any choices, it is morally incumbent on us to not justify our bad behavior with a general wave of the hand toward the state of the world when we are not the ones suffering most under our systems. We can never be perfect, but we can definitely be better.
The British philosopher Iris Murdoch believed that making moral choices was not as complicated as many of her forebears made it out to be. She argued that if you persist in clearing your clouded perception of the world and in refusing to give in to selfishness, you’ll never need to deliberate about the correct choice — “If I attend properly I will have no choices.” If your eyes are open to the reality of the exploitation that defines the garment industry, you already know what choice you should land on when you shop for a new going out top. I urge you to have the courage to make it.
Livia Daggett is a junior politics-philosophy and writing double major passionate about rethinking housing, justice and social services. It took them around 18 hours to crochet a small gift for their partner.
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