Does the “Made in Bangladesh” tag on your shirt—which could just as easily be read as “Made by Child Labor”—make you feel bad?
There’s no question it should make us reflect on the incredible standard of living that we enjoy. But as Texas Tech Professor Benjamin Powell explains, we shouldn’t feel bad or unethical for buying a shirt that was made in Bangladesh.
That’s because the other alternatives available to child laborers are so much worse. Because they are so poor, these children often must find some way to make money, or they risk starving to death.
In fact, boycotts of clothing companies that use child labor cause these jobs to disappear, which—as economist Paul Krugman has found—often results in starvation and child prostitution, clearly worse alternatives than working long hours in poor conditions for meager wages. Krugman concludes:
Anyone who thinks that the answer to world poverty is simple outrage against global trade has no head — or chooses not to use it. The anti-globalization movement already has a remarkable track record of hurting the very people and causes it claims to champion.
But no one can deny that child labor is not exactly an ideal solution. So how do we truly help improve the lives of children in poor countries?
It doesn’t involve limiting your wardrobe. It’s a bit more complicated than that.
It involves expanding economic freedom in impoverished countries, which has a proven track record of increasing wealth so that child labor is no longer necessary. Just look at the progress in China, where nearly one billion people have escaped poverty through advances in economic freedom.
One of the most important ways to advance economic freedom is to promote global trade, which in turn brings jobs to people who would otherwise have no other way of surviving. The ability to choose to get a paying job is an important first step for many people in finding freedom from poverty.
So when you’re buying your sweatshop-made shirts, don’t deny the hardship that someone went through to produce it. But also acknowledge that this shirt represents progress toward survival and prosperity for the person who made it.