To teach teens about sweatshop labour and the fashion industry is a hard topic to address because many of us ‘grown ups’ are guilty of it ourselves. As role models we are probably wearing brand names, or clothing that was mass-manufactured in another country, likely in a sweatshop. In our Western cities it’s hard to avoid. The cottage industry of clothes-making and textile crafting is virtually over. We seem desensitized to the poor working conditions of those in less-fortunate countries who are making our clothes, and our kids follow our example. So where does that leave us? To the shopping mall we go! Again…
This Vice News reporter exemplifies our desensitization to sweatshops by visiting Cambodia during its fashion week, seeing how terrible factory working conditions are, and then caving in to buy a “giant Barbie dress” anyway. Sound familiar?
When we think of the bigger picture, our idea that fashion should be cheap and plentiful can be a problem to our society’s moral conscience. Many of us would agree that kids should make informed decisions about their buying choices. The effects of teen knowledge about the fashion industry today could make a difference in our world’s future. As John Oliver explained in his rant on the subject, sometimes exposed companies with sweatshops get exposed, and try to make a difference. The problem is, the ‘mistake’ keeps happening over and over again.
How do we get our fashion-crazed teens interested and taking action on this issue? After all, we’ve been their age once, and know they are likely evaluating themselves and those around them by what everyone is wearing. And according to The School of Life, what others around us have is how we evaluate wealth. It’s not about “first world problems” per se.
Here are some creative ways to get kids thinking about the perils of the fashion industry, and how closely they play a part in it:
Teach teens about sweatshop labour and know how economies work by researching countries their clothes came from
We are living in a commercial, interconnected global village. But trade is not new, nor are factories. In teen history lessons they’ll learn about the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression. But they may not learn about today’s cost of labour, or how spending affects our economies and thus, our quality of life. Believe it or not, there is an economic argument for the existence of sweatshops.
Classroom learning idea:
Ask students to bring their favourite article of clothing to school. Have them all look at the tag and see where it was made. Now get them look up the country on a map and write a report on the country’s living conditions.
What is the average wage of a worker in that country? If the stats are in U.S. dollars, ask teens to learn about exchange rates and what the buying power of a U.S. dollar is in that country. Could you buy a meal with the same dollar amount in Bangladesh as you can in North America? What about paying rent? What about transportation? How much are cars in Bangladesh (or another fashion-producing country)? Are they the same price as they are in North America? Pretty soon, the teens can get an idea of how hard it can be to make a living on the other side of the world.
Now ask the students, with their newfound knowledge, if they would pay more for their clothes if it meant living conditions could be better somewhere else. And, what would change in that other country? What would change in this country if we all paid more to have our clothes manufactured here? This could spark interesting debate.
Teach teens about labour cost and shortages by asking them what they want to be when they grow up
It might sound silly, but when you ask teens in your classroom what they want to be when they grow up, you may find that very few will mention factory work. They may not even know what it is, really. But you may find someone who says they want to be a fashion designer. Or a computer programmer. Or an astronaut.
Classroom learning idea:
So now you have the perfect opportunity to ask the future fashion designer how thread is made, or where fabric comes from. And ask the computer-programmer-to-be what components are needed to make a hard drive, or the dust-free buildings that manufacture microchips. And then ask the aspiring astronaut to research where space suit material is made, and if you need a mask to make it.
Ask teens to find someone to interview about the materials they will need to do their future jobs. And ask the teens to get to know those people. It may lead them down a path to forming a pen pal in another country! But parents beware: kids should be protected from Internet prying and strangers they shouldn’t be talking to. Ask if overseas schools will participate in an exchange, if possible.
Here are some resources to get you going:
Who makes your iPhone: a discussion about sweatshops
Teacher Resource: Re-thinking Fast Fashion Lesson Plan
Now that they know where their future job materials come from, it’s time to pose the question of why those materials are not made in their home towns? Or, if they are, why is there a price difference, if any? What do companies save, really, by sending jobs overseas? How does that affect a person in North America who doesn’t get the education to become the fashion designer, computer programmer or astronaut? What happens to our society when people who used to work in factories in North America no longer have their jobs?
The needs-only challenge: teach teens about needs versus wants by getting them to wear one outfit all week
Remember the ice bucket challenge? Well that was easy compared to what we’re about to ask teens to do now: try to survive a week wearing only what they need. Turn it into a school fundraiser if you want. But the main objective should be to get our young generation thinking about our wastefulness in fashion. It’s true we waste food, but what about other materials?
Classroom learning idea:
Use this challenge to ask kids to reduce their wardrobe to the items available to the workers in the countries they have researched where clothes come from. If a sweatshop worker only has one pair of shoes, one t-shirt and one skirt to wear every day, challenge the teens to wear only that for an entire week. This might only be effective if everyone commits to it.
Note: don’t accept the excuse that something is dirty and therefore can’t be worn two days in a row. Ask the kids to wash their clothes every night if they need to.
At the end of the week, ask the teens to hold a class discussion on the topic. Did they die without their sneaker collection? Were they worried about what other people thought, even though everyone else was wearing the same thing every day? Why or why not? And, now that they know they survived without their selection of fashion choices for a week, will that stop them from visiting the shopping mall from now on? Why or why not?
To conclude: this lesson about sweatshop labour is not just about shopping
Teaching teens about sweatshop labour and the fashion industry can take many forms, and we encourage you to do more research on the topic. At School is Easy Tutoring, we believe that our younger generation should be aware of the world around them, and how they are connected to people in other countries. The fact is, we live in a globalized economy, and our actions can have a domino effect on people in other places.
The point of these lessons is not to get teens to stop shopping for clothes (though that would be nice on parents’ wallets!). The point is to teach them that their shopping excursions are not standalone experiences. It’s also to teach them that they can do something to make a difference in the world, even if that does mean less clothes shopping!