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Help to Find Out Where T-Shirts Come From

I consider myself to be “tri-polar,” meaning there are three identities that dictate my daily actions: entrepreneur, journalist, and ethics professor. While these three identities can sometimes compete with one another, there are those occasions when all three collaborate to support a single issue. One such situation is when I contemplate the “bigger” question we all struggle with — where did my T-shirt come from?

In a world that is so globalized, we often know little about the resources, practices, and labor that bring even everyday objects into our lives. What human rights are being violated in order for me to live the lifestyle that I do, and how can I change my life to put an end to those violations? It is baffling that for even the simplest things, this question cannot be answered simply.

The life cycle of the T-shirt I am wearing has five major components: raw materials, processing, manufacturing, packaging, and consumption. Within each step along the life cycle, my T-shirt will be refined numerous times by various industries and contractors, all of whom have a different understanding of what a just labor condition is. In some cases, a labor violation occurs where the input product is harvested, as is currently occurring in the Uzbekistani cotton industry, where children are forced to pick cotton during the harvesting season. In other cases, the labor violation occurs on the cutting-room floor, right before the product is shipped to the store, which is more commonly reported. Unfortunately for everyone involved — me, the consumer; the large production brand; and every worker refining the product — labor violations could occur within any one of these steps. As a consumer, each of my three identities has found it necessary to protest these violations.

As the entrepreneur, I first identify the problem: a complicated supply chain hinders transparency and convolutes accountability. How can the company make its supply chain more transparent? Who should the consumer hold accountable for the end product?

I then identify solutions: A company eager to ensure that forced labor does not occur in its supply chain will implement a voluntary labor standard. One such standard is Social Accountability 8000, which I discuss in my book Saving the Corporate Soul (Jossey-Bass). Early adopters of voluntary labor standards will implement an independent certification standard, not for monetary gain but for a higher moral or social calling. Unfortunately, standards such as this, or traceability technology, will never be mainstream unless they can be proven to have market value.

As the ethics professor, conscious about my consumption, I would prefer to purchase products with appropriate labor standards. Essentially, I fit into a niche market of consumers who are willing to use their purchasing power to further a collective “ethically–produced” brand. A single action of purchasing fair-trade chocolate or coffee is not enough to create a substantial market value for companies to adopt voluntary labor standards. However, if I connected with other consumers who had the same profanity for conscious consumerism, we would be able to aggregate a demand and create a free-to-work marketplace.

Luckily for David the conscious consumer, David the entrepreneur has created such a platform. Free2work.org is a hybrid wiki/repository for consumers and producers who have a profanity for preventing forced labor. This Web portal allows two populations who depend on each other to connect with one another. Our goal for this site: turn a moral or social decision into a financial gain. If enough consumers begin to use this innovative tool, certification standards will be the norm, rather than the anomaly, and we will all be able to answer the bigger question: where did this product come from?


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