WORDS AND RESEARCH BY ANNALISE BENDER-BROWN Many ethical clothing and fashion companies share imagery of their workers – usually, those people working in factories to produce said products – in a presumable attempt to practice transparency around their manufacturing processes and humanize their companies to consumers. Some of these companies will go so far as to refer to their workforce as a “family” – tapping into a shared imagination of intimacy, closeness, and trust.
Ethical clothing companies sharing imagery of the workers who make their products is also particularly stark because the images these companies share overwhelmingly depict people of color. These images stand in stark contrast to the images of the people actually modeling these companies’ clothing, who are, for most of these companies, overwhelmingly white. And many of the owners or public faces of these companies are white as well.
Nisolo, ethical shoemaker that produces its shoes in Peru, shares imagery of its factory workers on its website. Its workers cluster in groups, smiling widely, suggesting that they are one big happy family.
Notably, while buzzy ethical clothes maker Big Bud Press has shared imagery of their storefront workers modeling the company’s clothes, the images they share of their workers on the factory line often cut off the workers’ faces (perhaps for their privacy?) and show merely their hands. In one video, three different sets of brown folks’ hands appear, applying paint to pairs of the company’s pants, but the humans to whom these hands are attached never appear. These videos anonymize their workers while humanizing the company: they are a family, they are all in this together, they’re workers are just like us!
The effect of rarely showing the faces of the brown folks creating Big Bud Press’s clothes is subtle dehumanization and simultaneous tokenism: the people making the clothes rarely get to show their faces, yet the entirety of the clothing line rests on their labor. All that we see of them are their disembodied hands.
Beckett Simonon, ethical shoemaker, shares images on its website of the Bogotá, Colombia-based workers who produce its leather shoes. (To Simonon’s credit, they share images of their workers’ faces and bodies, rather than merely their hands.)
Presumably, at least some ethical clothing companies share these images in an attempt to shed light on their fairer labor practices, put a human face to the people making their products, and distinguish themselves from the “bad guys” who rely on extremely cheap labor in countries with little or no labor protections. And in that regard, they are doing better than unethical clothing companies, who often extract labor from workers in countries in the global south who produce clothes in extremely unsafe, unhealthy, and unfair working environments. And while ethical clothing companies’ desire to practice greater transparency with regard to their supply chain is laudable, sharing of images of their workers is not politically neutral.
Many of these images show factory workers of color in a way that smacks of something like poverty porn. The target audience of ethical clothing companies is primary middle- to upper middle-class and white-collar consumers. The people making these clothes are likely lower class. By pulling back the curtain – somewhat – on their labor practices, ethical clothing companies let their customers feel good about purchasing these companies’ clothing, but they don’t ask their customers to take any action beyond knowing that the person who made their garment was paid a fair wage.
Further, tapping into the idea of work as a “family” feels like a formulation unique to late capitalism. One’s workplace is not one’s family. Equating work with the family can be deeply problematic: workers may tolerate unfair or ill treatment in the workplace because of the idea that they owe their workplace particular devotion, or decline other opportunities out of a sense of loyalty or duty to their workplace as “family.” And describing the workplace as a family obscures the very real, unequal relations of power between the owners of the means of production and the workers who create their products.
Ethical clothing companies engaging in greater transparency with regard to their labor practices is likely a net positive in that it normalizes paying and treating workers fairly. But the act of sharing imagery of their factory workers has political and ethical consequences in its own right.