Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?
Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?

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Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?

1.3.3 Bringing remote sweatshops within reach continued

There are, to my knowledge, at least two ways in which this challenge has been mounted. The first, which I have already touched upon, gathered momentum in the 1990s when, to great effect, different elements within the growing antisweatshop movement sidestepped the tangled arrangements of the market by targeting the most visible icons of global trade, the big retail ‘brands’: Adidas, Nike, Gap, Umbro, Puma, Reebok, Fila, French Connection, Mattel, Disney, and so on. The antisweatshop movement, through campaigns such as ‘No Sweat’, fixed on brand-based multinationals as a direct and immediate political entry point into what had become a rather confusing economic landscape. In a diffuse and fragmented economic world where no one appears to be directly accountable for the bad conditions in faraway factories, the company logos offered an accessible way into the issues.

Figure 13
Figure 13 Logo artwork from the No Sweat Campaign

The voice of Naomi Klein, journalist and political activist, has been one of the strongest, in this respect. Company logos, she argues

have become the closest thing we have to an international language, recognised and understood in many more places than English. Activists are now free to swing off this web of logos like spy/ spiders – trading information about labor practices, chemical spills, animal cruelty and unethical marketing around the world.

(Klein, 2000, p.xx)

Klein's critique of the duplicitous nature of the branded corporations' actions, in her popular book No Logo (2000), captured neatly the confusion among many shoppers. If the big retail labels are powerful enough to dominate what is bought and sold in the West and to fix price levels between them, then surely they have the power and influence to demand improvements in sweatshop conditions elsewhere? In support of her case, Klein documented the ways in which the clothing and footwear majors took full advantage of the unequal geography of East Asia and beyond by moving production around to locations where workers were least protected and wages were at their lowest as part of ‘a race to the bottom’. By linking the actions of the branded retailers directly to the abuse of poor communities, she managed, at a stroke, to cut out everything in between. In doing so, she was able to draw closer politically what was happening elsewhere.

Actually, I say draw closer politically, but that needs elaborating a little. It is not that the hardships which took place in poorer locations distant in miles and kilometres moved in any physical sense, but rather that such hardships were brought directly to the attention of many of the world's most affluent buyers and consumers. The collapse of the distance created by the market separation of producer and consumer placed responsibility for what was previously seen as faraway back in the hands of North American and European corporate boardrooms, city governments and consumer groups. This was not, however, to be the only way in which the antisweatshop movement bridged the gap between ‘near’ and ‘far’.

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