If you did not know that people are being oppressed by the processes that deliver our fashion, now you do. The recent tragedy of a factory collapse in Bangladesh that resulted in over a thousand lives lost was not the first to take place, nor is Bangladesh the only country wherein such disasters take place. Unfortunately this is not a surprise; this issue has been known since No Logo was published over a decade ago. Certainly there were voices of concern raised previous to that publication, but it marked a landmark in shifting perception for a much wider audience. Since that time, to my knowledge, this issue has not been adequately discussed within our community.
Oppression is forbidden. The question is: are we as buyers of products that involved oppression to be made responsible?
From a traditional legal perspective, one who has no knowledge is not accountable. One who has doubt should avoid it. And one who has no knowledge might not be held accountable, as the buyer is only accountable for the manner in which the product is acquired by him or her (in other words he or she bought it legally at the store), not the way that the seller acquired it. There are grounds upon which some argue the knowledge of oppression within the supply chain is a means of knowingly supporting oppression, and take issue with that kind of transaction. One wonders if there needs to be a fresh look at the legality of trade in the contemporary and globalized fashion context.
I suggest we look elsewhere. Rather than bogging ourselves down in new legal edicts, which is warned against in the Qur’an as a mistake of people’s past, it might be worth taking a few steps back to examine this issue with a wider lens. Although we often turn to legal theory and jurisprudence to provide direction, at times this results in us missing the important lessons, or the big picture. Consider the rulings given to smoking due to its ill effects on health: in focusing so much on one action we’ve forgotten about the big picture of seeking to be healthy people. The epidemics of obesity are telling in this regard. Going back to fashion, two issues come to light: living an ethical life and consumerism.
The Prophetic tradition warns against consumerism and buying things we don’t actually need,. Rather, we are suggested to live lightly, acquire what we need and be on the earth as a traveler. In an age when shopping is a common pastime, this can be counter-cultural and difficult. Since each age and person has a unique situation and context, it would be unrealistic for us to strive to have the same quantity and types of possessions that the Prophet ﷺ had,. Rather, each of us individually should keep in mind this general advice and adjust accordingly. Without doubt, we all have room for growth in this area, in reducing our needs and wants to a realm that is closer to living as a traveler in this world.
Living an ethical life is another broad direction Muslims should keep in mind. We have many detailed examples of ethics in business but the take away message is that one needs to act ethically. This includes avoiding wastefulness, lying, deception and oppression. The question of legality in jurisprudence may not mean ethical per se, as legality deals with the permissibility of an act. Buying clothing, for example, is a permissible act. But not all actions of this sort are the same; buying clothing from a company known to oppress workers, buying fair trade clothing, buying clothing made of organic materials, and buying clothing one doesn’t need, are not all equal. Although all may be legally permissible, they are not ethically equal.
Everyone is in different situations, and as such, it seems more suitable to advocate that each of us strive to live more ethical lives as best we can. This might mean making small shifts in the kind of things we buy, how often we buy them, and where we buy them from, or it might be rethinking our needs and wants in light of the wider context that we are but travelers in this life. In doing so, let us think beyond our jeans. Think about everything from the food we eat and the resources we use to the way we invest our time. Living a more ethical life is something we can all do, each in our own respective ways. This can be something we regularly try to revisit for on-going personal improvement. Let this be a means through which we can deepen and strengthen the connection we have with God.