Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” Over the last months, this quote has been rattling in my mind and heart. My exposure to this important conversation of ethical fashion came because I went to Haiti to serve a children’s home years ago. It was after realizing that over half of the world’s orphans still had parents who were unable to afford raising their children that I started to dig a little further into how we can be a part of bringing healing to the root, not just the symptoms.
I had no idea that there were things I was doing, brands I was supporting, ways I had become comfortable consuming back home, in Williamsburg, Virginia, that contributed to a system of injustice — one where a woman would work 80 hours a week and still not be able to afford raising her children. In fact, there are orphanages filled with children and non-profits who are supporting families simply because the providers’ work does not pay a wage they can survive upon. Much of this work falls within the fashion industry, where over 85% of the garment factory workers are women paid less than $2.50 a day.
Now, of course, I am all about advocating for better wages, for more transparency, and for brands to be held accountable for the conditions of those making their clothes. But, I have to be honest. What keeps me up at night is not that many of the world’s fashion companies care more for profit than people; unfortunately that doesn’t surprise me and fits in a society that elevates our desires to the rest of the world’s needs. What keeps me up at night is the massive inconsistency I see in what we as Americans give to vs. what we will truly give up for.
My concern is how much more content we are to send money to an orphanage or non-profit than shop in a way that makes it possible for moms to care for their children. I don’t think this needs to be an either/or decision, as I know from experience that many non-profits and orphanages are working hard to change the systems in place. But, I absolutely do believe that if we are willing to give towards a symptom of an unjust system without also confronting the things in our our lives that would actually make the system just and our giving unnecessary, we might want to really investigate who we are truly giving for.
Our prayer and hope is that we don't shy away from this conversation because it makes us uncomfortable but rather, may we be both/and people — those who give generously and those who willingly look at the ways our lives, our shopping, our way of consuming are contributing to the very needs we give towards. May we lay down our privileges for others, making right the systems that have made our giving necessary in the first place.