Cambodian sweatshop reality series a wake-up call

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With the right mix of melodrama, gritty honesty and slick editing, this documentary series featuring three Norwegian fashion bloggers living the lives of Cambodian sweatshop workers has gone viral, and for worthy reasons too.

In the five-episode series, we follow three teen / post-teen bloggers (the oldest is 20 years old) to Phnom Penh, where they learn more about the lives of the people who make the fast fashion we wear (see a piece by HuffPost about fast fashion here). The story unfolds in a way viewers would expect – we’d see the bare living conditions of a Cambodian garment factory worker, fret with them when we learn how much (or how little) their daily wage can stretch in order to feed their families, and importantly, peek at the conditions of the factory where they toil, also known to many in the developed world as “sweatshops”. It is indeed a production that invokes a sense of injustice for the countless workers who are essentially invisible to us consumers who see only the final product, but not the subjugation of the people who made it.

While the use of teen bloggers has skewed the viewpoint from the beginning, this is not unrepresentative of the many in developed countries, where perhaps, a sense of entitlement and a lack of knowledge of the products they consume beyond the label can impede any action taken towards changing this. By wielding the very powerful instrument of social media through these young influencers (a 19 year old fashion blogger has more than 118K Instagram followers), we are able to reach out to the very people who are the target consumers of these products, and would be the purveyors of fashion in the decades to come.

As this was commissioned by a leading media in Norway, there was definitely a slant and according to one of the bloggers, a certain bias to this. The final product is moving but nothing that we didn’t already expect. However, by making these bloggers live, eat and work in the shoes of the workers, we do get close enough to a first-hand account of the injustice that goes on, and makes us review our choices. After all, we do vote with our money and this is a strong wake-up call.


But how should we review our lifestyle choices then? Our suggestion is to take the first step in having a greater connection with the people and processes behind the products we consume.

1. Get to know the people who make your clothes, or things that you consume

While this is not always possible (e.g. in the case of electronics), this is absolutely doable for fashion (local designers, seamstresses) or food (local farmers, artisanal food producers). This brings you closer to your community, and reduce the reliance and the urge to buy fast fashion or fast food.

2. Consider ethically made products

Or brands / products that give back to society. Online shop phatrice is a platform where you can find fashion, personal care and household products from brands that place a high priority on sustainability, ethics, or giving back to society. Buyers are also given an option to make a donation before check-out.

3. Recycle, upcycle, buy second hand

Many of the clothes we don’t wear end up in landfills if we do not carefully consider about its second life. Donation (consider Redress, or the Salvation Army) puts these unwanted clothing to those who need it more, or if you are nifty with crafts, consider upcycling (A Pair and A Spare offers good tips on how that can be done) and breathe new life to what was an aged fashion item. Else, find the closest second hand shop and be surprised at the gems that you can find there.

4. Find out your “Slavery Footprint”

Radical as it may sound, it is a part fun, part serious interactive survey where you get to calculate what your slavery footprint is through the things you consume, where you live and other lifestyle habits. It gets pretty comprehensive as well, so it could possibly reveal a thing or two that could be changed or adjusted to minimize negative impact on workers.

The above suggestions, unfortunately only serve to divert our expenditure towards more sustainable or ethical brands, however, they do close to nothing to alleviate the plight of sweatshop workers. Regardless, the wheels are already in motion, and big brands such as H&M have been under pressure to make substantial changes towards a fairer and more relational engagement of their workforce and contractors. These movements cannot be the lone battle of activists, but with the support of the masses and with social media to fan the flame, there could be light at the end of the tunnel for the disenfranchised from the developing countries.

Do you have a comment or a suggestion to add to the above? We’d love to hear from you!

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