Photo courtesy Matt Veith Creative. mattveith.prosite.com

Clothes and the growing ethical conscience

Questionable practices cause Christians to take a closer look at fashion choices

From “John 3:16” to “Jesus is My Homeboy,” Christian clothing has been a source of mixed feelings for people of faith. While some might find fun in faith-minded fashion, others might see the designs as tacky and the messages as a trite way of earning a quick buck off the Christian populace.

Toronto-based designer Donnie Persaud says that’s not the case with his new biblical brand of clothing.

“Our focus is not the bottom line—our focus is creating ministry opportunities for people,” he says.

In early June, Persaud launched Live Christ Clothing, a brand that aims to inspire ministry conversations through its messages of Christian faith and hope. He hopes that when people wear the shirt, “somebody will ask you a question or say something, and there’s an opportunity for you to witness to somebody which perhaps you may not have otherwise had.”

In recent years, a focus on Fair Trade has led many to inquire about the ethical practices of their chosen brands, a sentiment that Persaud says he shares.

“Certainly when we grow to that stage, God willing, we will certainly want to know that we’re using reputable [suppliers], and it’s not hazardous conditions where employees are getting injured [or] buildings are collapsing,” he says.

Photo courtesy Live Christ Clothing
Photo courtesy Live Christ Clothing

But currently, Live Christ buys its fabrics through Gildan, a Montreal-based wholesaler that has been criticized in the past for poor labour conditions in its Central American and Caribbean manufacturing centres despite numerous assurances to improve its practices.

Such concerns raise an interesting ethical issue for designers looking to ‘promote Christ’ through their brand. Should ‘Christian clothing designers’ care about where their clothes are made? Winnipeg-based custom clothing designer Lisa Dyck says, “Absolutely.”

Dyck, who grew up attending an Evangelical Covenant Church in Minnedosa, Manitoba, says that while her business is not a ministry, ethics are important, especially so for people claiming to promote Jesus through their business.

“How could you go out and say that you care about people…and have your clothing made where people aren’t being paid?” she says.

At the same time, Dyck admits that buying Fair Trade fabrics doesn’t come cheap, and even she herself has struggled with the ethics of her business.

“If I bought Fair Trade it would be twice the price. So right now, I can’t afford it,” she says.

Dyck explains that many designers will set their own prices through a “full-package supplier” who then seeks out the fabrics on their behalf, which may or may not involve Fair Trade labour depending on the price point set by the designer.

Photo courtesy Matt Veith.
Photo courtesy Matt Veith.

“To get that price to me, they may use slave labour, they may use cotton that was from wherever extra scrap place they could get it, they may dye with dyes that are illegal here, they may do all sorts of stuff,” Dyck says.

Dyck admits she often struggles with how her business operates in order to stay financially viable.

“Sometimes it feels bad,” she says. “I go to the fabric store and I don’t know where the fabric came from—but I buy it and make things and I make money off of that. That feels bad, too.”

The challenge of affordability is common not only among designers, but at a family level as well. Cheryl Hotchkiss, who helped lead World Vision’s recent No Child for Sale campaign against child labour and exploitation, says that she too is occasionally frustrated by how difficult it can be navigate the ethics of clothing.

“I frustrate myself. I’m a mother of two teenage kids…sometimes I apply the wrong criteria to consumer decisions that I’m making,” she says. “But I think as Christians we’re constantly working these things out on a day-to-day basis.

A big part of the problem is just how commonplace it is for companies to use international labour, the quality of which they may or may not know much about.

“If you go to any company, most of them cannot tell you exactly where that product that they have hanging in their stores is made and if the product is made by people whose rights are being protected,” she says.

Additionally, Hotchkiss says that lawmakers have fallen far behind the practices of many big companies, something that few consumers care to question as well as something that makes companies using exploitative labour that much harder to implicate.

“In the globalized society that we’re living in, our legal systems are not completely up to speed with how we’re operating, how our businesses are operating… we’ve had the luxury of being able to sit in ignorance of that.”

Val Hiebert, a professor of sociology at Providence University College in Otterburne, Manitoba, says that at their core level, injustices in the tactile industry have more to do with a society that encourages buyers to discard clothing for no real good reason.

“We never really stop to think about how duped we are,” she says. “We take thousands and thousands of dollars worth of perfectly good clothing that the fashion industry convinced us last year we had to have, and have convinced us this year we can’t wear.”

Such realities seem to paint a bleak picture on how the average consumer can make a difference, yet Hiebert seems hopeful that a new way of living is beginning to catch on.

“The market itself I think is telling us that there’s a significant amount of interest in thinking differently about what we buy,” she says. “So when people say to me, ‘Oh, it’s just too overwhelming; I can’t help that little kid in China who’s making jeans anyway,” I guess my response is, ‘Well actually, you can.’ We already have evidence of it.”

The easiest step that individuals can take in curbing the injustices of the garment industry would be to simply reevaluate their actual clothing needs versus the things they’ve been led to think they need through the culture of mass marketing and covetousness. Many individuals and families are already embracing this new way of living.

“There’s a good third of people that come into the [simpler living] movement because they’re just tired of the consumption lifestyle and they’re stressed to the max,” Hiebert says. “They just want out.

“And among those are some of these lower income families who are tired of feeling the pressure for their kids to look like everybody else’s kids…but those are choices that people have to make independently.”

Another example is the emerging industry of making new clothes out of reused or recycled fabrics, often from thrift stores, something that Dyck has done in the past as a response to how quickly quality fabrics are often discarded.

“There’s so much stuff out there...why would we just keep making stuff when there’s so much stuff already?” she says. While she admits that this part of her business has slowed down, recycled clothing could be a way for people to cut down on outsourced and often unethical labour, should her customers demand it.

She agrees that average people can be a part of the solution only if they’re willing to buck the culture of consumerism first and foremost.

“I would say it’s possible, but the current standard is to have a closet stocked full of clothes…if you didn’t think that you needed a new shirt every time that you went out the door, then it would be fine.”

The availability of Fair Trade garments along with the rising trend of second-hand or thrift store shopping are other ways that individuals, and Christians especially, can take part in real ethical change in the garment industry. Such ideas, though sometimes looked down upon, shouldn’t be a cause for uneasiness among consumers, Hiebert says.

“People have these stigmas—they think that it means, ‘Oh boy, I’ll be able to recognize a thrift store shopper.’ But you can’t,” saying that much of her own wardrobe comes secondhand, which few identify even in her classroom.

Ultimately, buying ethically, though challenging, is indeed an issue that Christians need to take note of, and one that Hiebert hopes the Church will lead the charge on.

“Purchasing is an ethical activity…there’s ethics involved in where we put our money and what that money then supports.

“Don’t we have something in the Bible about the least of these? I seem to remember something about that,” she adds with a laugh. “I think this is exactly where the Church should be…because this is about justice. This is about everything the [biblical] text calls us to.”

Hiebert says she’s most encouraged by the newer generations who are already catching on to these ideas.

“I have the great joy of, every year, having a whole bunch of fresh-faced students in front of me who actually are just starting their lives,” she says. “They’re not yet completely caught in consumption patterns the way we adults are.

“They give me a lot of hope; because a lot of them are very open to these ideas… probably in the next 30 years, I would say, we’re going to reach a place where those who have learned simplicity practices…are going to be teaching other people how to do this.”

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About the author

Rob Horsley is the former Managing Editor of ChristianWeek.