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.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey