How to Become a Conscientious Shopper

For all the gorgeous items it produces, the clothing industry is surprisingly ugly. As companies strive for bigger and better profits, they want labor that's cheaper than ever, and so they turn to sweatshops in countries with lax labor standards. This is often referred to as a "race to the bottom" — and the results are awful.

The U.S. Department of Labor defines a sweatshop as "an employer that violates more than one federal or state labor law governing minimum wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers compensation or industry regulations," but this doesn't even begin to cover the bleak reality of what sweatshops have come to be. Workers are typically paid a "piece wage," meaning they get compensated based on the number of clothing items they complete — so they work long, hard hours just to cobble together a living. They're screamed at, literally chained to their work stations, refused bathroom breaks, sexually and physically abused, subject to horrible workplace injuries, and treated without dignity. Female workers are often interrogated about their contraceptive use, menstruation schedule, and sexual practices, and forced to take random pregnancy tests so that the sweatshops can avoid paying maternity benefits. If they find a pregnant woman, they might move her to a more physically demanding section so that she's forced to resign.

Well, at least this is all happening overseas, right? (Nope.)

To put it frankly, it's absolutely disgusting that huge, profitable corporations can live this double life: Running glamorous ad campaigns with high-profile models and marketing their products as fun, sexy, youthful, and fabulous while they sell fast fashion that's been sewn by children. But let's be honest, it's easier to just turn a blind eye, because cheap, trendy clothing is so addictive. Walking into H&M on your lunch break, dropping $30, and coming out with a bag stuffed full of hilarious t-shirts and blingy jewelry is one of postmodern society's little joys, until you remember that $30 may be more than many sweatshop workers make in an entire month.

Want to help out? Here's how you can begin to change the system.

1. Get educated. Believe me, ignorance is bliss in this case. But if you'd like a cold hard dose of reality, the International Labor Rights Forum is a good place to start. Sweatshop-Free Shopping has some informative (i.e., sad, guilt-inducing) videos, and these 11 facts about sweatshops will get you fired up. Green America's Responsible Shopper Guide is a fantastic way of knowing what exactly you're supporting when you head into a big chain. You can search for companies by name and see the human rights' allegations that have been brought against them. CorpWatch is another company dedicated to keeping corporations on the straight and narrow.

2. Obsess over labels. Sadly, "Made in the U.S.A." is a label that carries no weight today. Not only are there sweatshops in the U.S.A., but this label can also refer to clothing made in U.S. territories, where U.S. labor laws don't apply. It can also creepily apply to clothing that was made overseas and finished up in the U.S.—for example, by adding buttons.

Here are some labels you can get behind: UNITE (a union), Fair Trade Federation, Fair Trade USA, and Union House.

3. Thrift your heart out. One of the many amazing things about thrift and vintage shopping — besides cheap prices and a cool factor — is that you can buy whatever you want with a clear conscience. You're not directly supporting unjust labor practices (even if the item did originally come from a sweatshop), you're helping the environment (no shipping or production costs, and you're keeping clothes out of landfills), and you're supporting a local business.

4. Get involved. If researching sustainable business practices and buying union-made clothing aren't enough to give you your responsible-consumer fix, there's always more you can do. Simply informing your favorite retailer that you disapprove of their practices, or that you — gasp! — won't be buying their products anymore is a good way to begin making a difference.

You can also get involved with an organization that's fighting sweatshop abuses — here's an extensive list. Call them up, write them a check, host a clothing swap party with your friends and ask for donations, make a sign and picket outside big corporations, change your Facebook status. There's no such thing as bad press in this case — well, unless you're a company that's using sweatshops.

Just like adopting a green beauty routine, becoming a completely responsible consumer isn't going to happen in a day, and that's OK. It's tempting to have an all-or-nothing mentality about serious issues like sweatshops, but that kind of thinking tends to weed out a lot of people who feel like they just can't live up to the standards. Even the tiniest contribution is still meaningful. So here's the plan: Get informed, start small, and begin to make conscientious choices about what you buy. As a consumer, you hold more power than you think. After all, you've got the wallet.