Provocative Labels Expose Sweatshop Horrors to Shoppers

A Canadian advertising campaign reveals the whole truth about that sweater you want to buy.

(Photo: The Canadian Fair Trade Network)

Mar 31, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The only thing on a clothing label that most of us pay attention to when we’re shopping is what size a garment is. As for whether an item was made in a sweatshop by a kid getting paid a pittance: Plenty of shoppers take an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to the issue.

A new campaign from the Canadian Fair Trade Network turns the spotlight on how the $9 jeans we buy are being produced. The nonprofit teamed up with the creative agency Rethink on "The Label Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story," a powerful series of print advertisements and posters that detail the dangerous working conditions and dire health consequences sweatshop workers endure.

This berry-colored sweatshirt looks perfect to slip on when you take your dog for a walk. But more than blood diamonds are being unethically produced in Sierra Leone. The label on this garment reveals that on top of long hours and low pay, textile production in the African nation is rife with health hazards. "100% cotton. Made in Sierra Leone by Tejan. The first few times he coughed up blood he hid it from his family," reads the label.

"They couldn't afford medical treatment and he couldn't risk losing his long-time job at the cotton plantation. When he fell into a seizure one day it could no longer be ignored. The diagnosis was pesticide poisoning. The lack of proper protective clothing has left him with leukemia at the age of 34. He has two daughters. One of them starts work at the factory next year. The label doesn't tell the whole story," continues the tag.

The tag on the blazer in the above photo takes on the situation of sweatshop workers in Bangladesh. Working conditions in the South Asian country were put in the spotlight in 2013 after a garment factory collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring more than 2,500. But despite pledges of reforms, the label on the blazer shows that working conditions in the country's factories still need improvement. "100% cotton. Made in Bangladesh by Joya who left school at the age of twelve to help support her two brothers and newly widowed mother," reads the tag.

"Her father was killed when a fire ripped through the cotton factory where he works. She now works in the building across the street from the burned down factory. A constant reminder of the risk she takes everyday. The label doesn't tell the whole story," it continues.

"100% cotton. Made in Cambodia by Behnly, nine years old. He gets up at 5:00 am every morning to make his way to the garment factory where he works," reads the label on this yellow sweater. "It will be dark when he arrives and dark when he leaves. He dresses lightly because the temperature in the room he works reaches 30 degrees."

That's the equivalent of 86 degrees Fahrenheit—a temperature most of us would find difficult to work in for an entire day. The effects of the heat on Behnly are compounded by the room's atmosphere. "The dust in the room fills his nose and mouth. He will make less than a dollar, for a day spent slowly suffocating. A mask would cost the company ten cents. The label doesn't tell the whole story," the tag reads.

Last fall, sweatshop workers in Cambodia successfully petitioned fast-fashion retailers such as H&M, Zara, and Primark to raise their wages from $100 a month to $177, but worker advocates in the country say the salary jump didn't address the myriad problems in the nation's garment industry.

Sure, these stories are depressing—especially when all most of us want to do when we're shopping is think about what shoes will go with a purchase. But given that only about 1 percent of garments worldwide are ethically sourced, perhaps knowing the whole truth about how some of our clothes are produced will inspire more folks to push for fair compensation and safe working conditions in the fashion industry.