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Culture

Jan 19, 2016

Outrage hobbyists miss the point in $2 Target shirt storm

Was the recent campaign against Target's $2 back-to-school-special shirts effective boycotting or just “old-fashioned bogan bashing”?

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For several hours last weekend, the internet found itself without anyone to blame. No morally confusing rock star had died, no cricketing rogue had misspoken, and were it not for the release of a clothing chain-store catalogue, the nation’s outrage hobbyists may have found themselves facing an empty afternoon. As the market revealed its back-to-school specials, justice claimed itself a project.

When Wesfarmers divisions Target and Kmart each announced the sale of shirts for state school students at $2 and $5 respectively, social media resumed its default pique. Traditional media soon followed with Fairfax, Bauer and DMGT all running with this “people power” story in their flagship publications. Reporters echoed the con­­­cerns of consumers who had said on Facebook and elsewhere that there could be no doubt that the textile workers of trade-dependent economies had suffered for our children. Boycotts were threatened and the idea of “fair trade” was evoked.

These, of course, are relevant material concerns — especially when compared to an irrelevant something a batsman said to a sports reporter. Textile workers have faced hardship and hazards that do not start with Pemberton Mill in 1860 and do not end with Rana Plaza more than 150 years later. Concern for those lives claimed by the textile industry is legitimate and good.

But the new solution to an old problem is all stitched-up by 21st century misunderstanding.

In media accounts of the weekend’s consumer action against Kmart and Target, Nick Savaidis, founder of ethical clothing company Etiko, echoed the current thinking of many when he said: “Ultimately consumers have to be held accountable.” Consumers are accountable. These days, the notion that employers are accountable for the death and exploitation of workers in their care has gone the way of the spinning mule.

The historic response to unfair conditions, such as those that produced the Triangle Factory atrocity, which claimed hundreds of American lives, has been to organise labour. The contemporary response is to organise consumers who apparently have “ultimate accountability”.

While Savaidis and the many parents who have claimed personal responsibility for the workers of the world mean well, they are not thinking well here on several counts.

First, such activism reeks of leisure. To call the purchase of a cheap kid’s shirt an act of “ultimate accountability” is not going to win you much support outside of the mason jar set. The purchase of a low-cost item is not a naked act of industrial aggression, but a sensible use of the limited income on which many “unethical” shoppers survive. There are more than half a million retail sales workers in Australia, and were it not for the inflation-curbing Walmart effect, people who work at Target wouldn’t be able to shop at Target.

Second, claims that the supply chain for this item is particularly unethical are pure conjecture. Target has not disclosed to press the details of its back-to-school deal, but press reports happily amplify the mere suspicion that the retailer is “ripping someone off”. It is quite possible that the shirt is a loss-leader priced to lure shoppers to other, more profitable purchases. And it is quite true that Target, which is, at least, a signatory to the post-Rana Plaza accord on building safety, isn’t “ripping someone off” with any more force than premium retailers. Actually, the 2015 Australian Fashion Report prepared by Baptist World Aid ranks Target and Kmart quite favourably. It does not rank retailer R.M. Williams very well at all. R.M.’s much-loved craftsman boots might come in at $493 more than the maligned school shirt, but they do kick the proletariat in the face with more precision.

Third, like many popular online actions, this one is fuelled by the ardent belief in people power. And while it is true that boycott strategies, such as Fashion Revolution Day, may produce limited outcomes, it is not true that organised consumption is any tactical match for organised labour.

Associate Professor in ANU’s sociology department Rick Kuhn has a long interest in the effectiveness of organised labour. Of press response to the $2 shirt, he says, “what we have here are pleas for individual goodness, rather than the more effective offer of support for workers to defend themselves”. Kuhn sees a hypocrisy in the Target-chiding and not just because it’s “old-fashioned bogan bashing” but because such analysis overlooks the long-term changes to labour needed for both consumer and producer of this particular shirt.

“The problem in Bangladesh is a lack of unionisation. The problem in Australian, worsened by the trade union royal commission, has become a lack of unionisation.” While Bangladeshi textile workers have no choice but to make this, or any other shirt, many Australian labourers confront a diminished choice in purchases. What other shirt is a low-income earner going to buy?

Last weekend’s online action sought to elevate the power of the individual consumer through the semi-fictional story of an individual shirt. By Monday, it had narrowed the broad economic understanding needed to effect long-term change in the textile industry down to almost nothing.

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6 comments

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6 thoughts on “Outrage hobbyists miss the point in $2 Target shirt storm

  1. Roberto

    Then there are the issues about growing cotton and the waste of water etc affecting the climate and agricultural land, and the huge amount of waste generated by our overconsumption of clothes. Many items end in landfill well before they are worn out. I saw some figures a couple of years ago and it was surprising how much our clothing consumption contributed to our greenhouse footprint. It was comparable to fuel use. So maybe T shirts should not be used as loss leaders, and maybe everyone would be better served by buying one or two well made items that will last than semi disposable items, or try Vinnies or other recycling centres for clothes.

  2. ken svay

    I have lived in Cambodia for many years and I know a lot about the garment industry here. Do I dare to say more than anyone else on Crikey. It costs about $2.50 to produce a shirt in Cambodia and less than 50 cents is the labour content.
    But jacking wages is not the answer, higher wages mean higher rents for shacks and more expensive food at the stalls around the factories. And higher charges for transport to work if one doesn’t live four or five to a room. Women are crammed into trucks for the ride home on terrible roads with terrible drivers. Two trucks collided last week with four women dead and sixty injured.
    Two years ago three or four women were shot at a demonstration for higher wages. The shooter was the mayor of Bavet who is yet to face justice. They worked at the factory producing Puma shoes. There are often mass fainting episodes caused by malnutrition, heat and chemicals-these women cant afford to eat properly.
    Most people have no idea who the biggest clothing firms in the world are, they make massive profits and are anonymous. But there are two men in Sri Lanka with lots of factories who look after their workers and still make money.
    The international garment industry is a disgrace.

  3. CML

    So please tell…how is it going to help the Bangladeshi textile workers if we don’t buy their T-shirts at all???
    I agree with Helen…people with limited incomes do NOT have a choice about how much they pay for a T-shirt, ethical or otherwise!
    Surely the latest research by Oxfam should tell you something…3.5 billion people on the bottom of the economic scale have the same economic worth as the top 62, yes 62, of the world’s richest individuals…some of them from both ends live in Oz!
    Inequality on that scale is obscene…perhaps the ‘moral protesters’ would like to do something about that little problem.
    The current LNP/Talcum government sure as hell won’t!!

  4. Norman Hanscombe

    Consumers may TALK about ethical buying, but that’s about as far as it generally goes.

  5. AR

    If the consumer is not responsible then go on slathering palm oil based cosmetics (once whale derived) and bugger the orang.
    BDS has a great future, in many many areas of 21stC consumer lifestyle, as BigOil is discovering..

  6. Di Keller

    Loss leaders are typically very limited in numbers. These stores have huge stocks of these unbelievably cheap articles of clothing , and Target at least has them all the time . So no, not loss leaders. Someone is losing out.

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