Bjorn Claeson, Executive Director, SweatFree Communities
In a time of economic crisis and shifting paradigm the sweatfree movement faces an apparent dilemma. Cash-strapped states and cities appear to have fewer resources at their disposal to ensure they do not buy products made in sweatshop conditions, but increasing numbers of public officials seem morally and perhaps politically inclined to look more closely at the origins of the products they buy. The dilemma can be resolved by recognizing that ethical public procurement is not just a moral imperative, but also a strong economic stimulus measure. An investment in sweatfree purchasing is an investment in an economy with less sweat.
The habitual reaction to economic downturn – to buy cheap – will be difficult to break. That is why Wal-Mart, which promotes its “price leadership,” appears as a lone “bright spot” in a dismal retail climate despite its questionable labor practices. But our public institutions have a greater responsibility than individuals to treat purchasing as a tool of social policy that can advance a more sound economy that reflects citizens’ values and meets the needs of working people. By searching out the lowest price, without regard for the workers who make the product, large institutional buyers accelerate the race-to-the-bottom. Weakening labor standards will only deepen the economic crisis. A stronger economy requires more economic justice. Our public institutions should help to build economic strength by considering more than the price of the products they buy. They should ask about the workers who made the products: Are they paid a decent wage? Do they have reasonable working hours? Are they free to speak up about injustices in the workplace? Ultimately, workers who are better off will create wealth for everyone. Wealth does not “trickle down;” it springs up from a foundation of justice.