Scandalous, bitter, and farcical – all these words aptly describe the recent US Presidential election. Even still, every press release, debate, argument, and polling result was attentively anticipated; and not just by Americans. Despite being located on the other side of the word, many here enjoy keeping up to date with US politics. Further, most of us have some knowledge of US Presidential history and could name a few historical Presidents. The likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. But what about Benjamin Harrison?
By no means the most well-known historical figure, Benjamin Harrison became the 23rd President of the United States of America in 1888. A largely uneventful tenure in the top job, his popularity wavered and he was soundly beaten in his bid for reelection in 1892 by Grover Cleveland. He did however leave us with one of the most powerful, thought-provoking and convicting quotes of all time:
“I cannot always sympathize with that demand which we hear so frequently for cheap things. Things may be too cheap. They are too cheap when the man or woman who produces them upon the farm or the man or woman who produces them in the factory does not get out of them living wages with a margin for old age and for a dowry for the incidents that are to follow. I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth or shapes it into a garment will starve in the process.”
You can only measure the magnitude of this quote when you take into account the ways of society at the time it was spoken. The eight-hour work day wasn’t yet a thing, Henry Ford hadn’t introduced his famed $5 a day wages, and labour laws overall were pretty nonexistent. There was one other key difference here. Although most of the clothing was made in America, workers undoubtedly would have included African Americans and minorities. Treatment of these people had improved, but America as a whole was far from being past racism. This statement was directly in support of the lowest in the working chain. This though was the character of the man, as Benjamin Harrison fought hard (ultimately unsuccessfully) to enact legislation protecting and extending civil rights of African Americans.
“I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth or shapes it into a garment will starve in the process.”
Fast forward to the present day and things seem very similar. The problems still exist, they have just moved to another continent. Labour laws in the West, although not perfect, have improved considerably. To get around this though and cater to the fast fashion industry, companies have instead moved into Third World countries. Laws here in some cases are non-existent or ignored.
Benjamin Harrison’s message has not been heeded and exploitation is now rife. Ethical warriors are fighting more than ever to wrest control and give manufacturers a fighting chance. Those challenging words from the man who held arguably the most influential role in the world at the time were brushed aside. He identified a new developing issue, and instead of people doing something about it, it was left to manifest and grow. From what was a somewhat small concern amongst an unregulated work industry, is now a massive issue that is one of the biggest blights on the world we now live in.
This is a quote that should touch the hearts of everyone who reads it. It should compel us, if we haven’t already, to change our purchasing habits for the rest of your lives. Read it again and see it for all it’s worth. What is it really saying? It’s saying that if you purchase a $5 T-shirt then you are supporting exploitation. You are effectively standing before a worker in an overcrowded factory in Bangladesh and saying “I can live with increasing your misery, I don’t care if you aren’t earning enough to feed yourself.” Why? Because when a T-shirt is $5 “I can buy 3 now, wear them a few times, and then buy 3 more in a months’ time.”
I’m with Benjamin Harrison here – it’s time to be more conscious and think about the full impact from the purchase of that coat. Businesses are providing alternatives that support a better future for those lowest down in the clothing industry. The world failed to grasp this message once, now over a century later, we have another chance. Let’s make it count this time!