Wednesday, January 21st, 2009


obama-1If you are anything like us, yesterday was a total wash when it came to getting work done.  The Autonomie team was either braving the crowds at the inauguration (go Gina!) or completely glued to the tv all day long.  We were just totally intrigued by this special moment in our nation’s history and are truly excited for all that is to come in 2009 and beyond!

One thing that of course caught our attention as owners of a Fair Trade fashion company was all of the commentary on the clothing worn by the Obamas throughout the day.  Who wasn’t gossiping over Michelle Obama’s inauguration day dress made by Isabel Toledo and then the stunning gown she wore, danced in, and tripped on at all 10 inaugural balls.  If you’re not up on the fashion scoop, Michelle’s ball gown was designed and made especially for her by new up-and-coming designer Jason Wu.  It seems that critics across the board are applauding Michelle for her Big Day outfit choices for not only herself, but also for her 2 young daughters, Malia, age 10, and Sasha, age 7.

crew-cutsThe totally adorable and brightly colored winter coats donned by the girls as they watched their father be sworn in as the next leader of our country were made by none other than J.Crew’s new kid’s line Crew Cuts.  While Malia and Sasha’s coats were made especially for them and no other little girl will be able to wear the exact same thing, Michelle is still getting praised for not only how ultra cute the girls looked, but on her choice of using a very accessible and relatively affordable fashion brand unlike First Moms in the past.  While typical inaugural day fashions cost upwards of $1,000, Michelle’s use of an everyday clothing company found in malls across the nation has endeared her more to the American public than ever before.

jacketWhile we agree with the critics that it’s wonderful to see Michelle Obama not let the celebrity-dom of the White House get to her head and continue to shop in all-American locales, we are hardly handing out the accolades when we feel Mrs. Obama could have made a much bigger statement by dressing her daughters in outfits not made in sweatshops.  It’s true that Fair Trade and/or eco-friendly children’s fashions are much more difficult to find than just paying  a visit to the local mall, but they are no less adorable or affordable (like this Organic Baby Cardigan from Fair Indigo) and would have made enormous strides for the ethical fashion movement towards building more awareness and peace around the garment industry.  No doubt Crew Cuts sales of little girls’ jackets will soar through the roof after yesterday, so why not channel that celebrity power to some of the smaller, grassroots do-gooder companies that are so very aligned with Mr. Obama’s values and mission and are working tirelessly to bring positive change to both America and the world?

Now don’t get us wrong….we LOVE, love, love the Obamas.  How could you not?  They’re a beautiful, smart, loving and competent family.  The perfect face for America in 2009 and honestly, a breath of fresh air.  But we do hope that in the very near future, Mrs. Obama will start making headlines about supporting Fair Trade and eco-friendly fashions for her daughters.  Now wouldn’t that get some well-deserved attention from the media!

nicholas-kristofNicholas D. Kristof’s op-ed piece in the January 14, 2009 New York Times titled, “Where Sweatshops Are a Dream” has inspired a flurry of disagreeing letters and comments from the public. In case you missed it, Kristof argues that sweatshops provide a great opportunity for those in extreme poverty and that the jobs in sweatshops are far better than rag-picking in a toxic landfill all day. Therefore, his logic extends, more sweatshops should be created. I’ll give him that there are worse things in this world than sweatshops, like being machine-gunned or maybe forced into prostitution. While this might make sweatshops a better alternative, it is certainly no solution, nor is it even a good or just alternative, especially when we have the means to do better.

Instead of arguing the many points raised in his piece, I’ll re-post below some of the thoughtful reactions from others. All responses below are selected excerpts from the letters to the editor and comments posted on the New York Times website.

  • -Nicholas D. Kristof is absolutely right. Sweatshops are much better than a sharp stick in the eye. But when jobs aren’t a pathway out of poverty, they create an asymmetric, unsustainable global economy of producer countries and consumer countries that can stand on its head only so long.
  • sweatshop2-He [Kristof] misses the point: Cambodian garment shops are among the best in Asia because of a deal done with the United States in a trade treaty signed in 1999. In return for access to the American market, Cambodia agreed to abide by core labor standards, including the right to form a union and to bargain collectively. As result, the industry grew rapidly and so have unions in Cambodia.
  • -Nicholas D. Kristof seems not to understand that the No. 1 reason for imposing higher labor standards on imports isn’t to improve living standards abroad but to maintain them here. Americans shouldn’t be asked to compete with workers who think that toiling long hours under abysmal conditions is still better than living in the dump.
  • -As I get older, I think of the options you pose as a choice between different levels of Hell. Is this the best we can do in 2009? Is this to be considered progress and the fruits of modernity?
  • garbage-dump-And by the way, the situation of the garbage pickers in Steung Meanchey is a bit more complex than depicted in the article. It’s related to the difficulties of making a living in the countryside, to land seizures, to government corruption, to monopolization of natural resources by a small circle of elites, to lack of democracy, to post-conflict issues involving displacement and resettlement. In other words, international forces can and should play a much more positive than they do now but many domestic changes need to occur in order for the garbage pickers of Steung Meanchey to disappear.
  • -Sweatshops do not advance the next generation. It is people’s desire to create a better life for their children that motivates an individual to work hard and make that happen, in spite of the sweatshop mentality. I wonder if those people losing jobs here in the US will accept or work hard at a professional job for half pay of what they formally were paid – and to tell them there are many who will take your place if your don’t is not a justification for such treatment. Poverty creates social unrest. You are clearly well educated, please revisit your national and personal history.
  • sweatshop1-Perhaps some working conditions are better than others, but that still doesn’t make them right. How much more effort would it take to make the work place safe, hours tolerable and child labor controlled? It sort of feels like listening to the argument that waterboarding isn’t torture because it doesn’t leave permanent scars. Sweatshops are sweatshops and we who buy their products need to be mindful of the conditions the workers are being forced to endure.
  • -Carried to its logical end, we would all be working in sweatshops eventually, because what you advocate is nothing more than a race to the bottom. More factories – yes! But with internationally accepted standards, or they will bring us all down to a debased level.
  • -Whenever I’ve read your pieces on sweatshops, I’ve always wondered: how did a nice guy like you get stuck in such an argument? I’ll try to be brief: You are right that sweatshops are really a symptom of poverty (or to be more precise, capitalists taking advantage of poverty). But so is prostitution. Where does that fit in your hierarchy of jobs? How about slavery? Might that not be considered better than scavenging in a dump as well?

It is great that Kristof’s work has brought forth lively reactions on such an important matter. I’m very happy that he exists… in the op-ed world and not in the ‘deciding’ world. You can view his column and continue to follow the discussion HERE.

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