John Oliver’s Fashion Segment Left a Bad Taste in My Mouth

john oliver last week tonight fashion

I used to be a youth group leader at a Unitarian church, and one Sunday we had a college student come in to talk to the teenagers about fast fashion and sweatshops. The kids were a savvy bunch, and noted immediately that our speaker was presenting facts on sweatshops with one hand while the rest of her arm was wearing some kind of poly-cotton blend.

“Is there a way to get clothing that isn’t from sweatshops?” someone asked at the end.

The answer was no. To be fair, “no” is probably an incomplete answer, but when sites like Humane Connection or Green America list “going to thrift shops” as the best way to avoid sweatshop clothing, you know that there isn’t a realistic way of keeping sweatshop-made clothing off your body. You can buy it from a retailer or you can buy it used, but you’re still buying it. Or you can buy a handmade dress at a farmer’s market, but unless the fabric was hand-woven you still might have some kind of exploited labor somewhere in the supply chain. (For that matter, a person who makes a dress and then sells it at a farmer’s market for what might be a $15 profit is probably exploiting his or her own labor.)

This week, John Oliver did a Last Week Tonight segment on fast fashion and sweatshops, noting aptly that sweatshops are a problem we’re all aware of but haven’t done anything to fix. In return, we get cheap clothing, like the Old Navy dress I’m currently wearing paired with a Forever 21 cardigan.

Oliver, like the student who spoke to our youth group, did not offer a solution. It was enough to say “did you know our clothing is made in sweatshops, often by child labor?” and then put the burden of solving the problem on the person on the other side of the YouTube or HBO interface. (Who are we kidding, though; it’s probably YouTube.)

Then Oliver announced he was going to send the equivalent of sweatshop-made clothing to the CEOs of various fashion retailers. He would send these CEOs “the most food they could get for the cheapest price,” instructing the CEOs to eat this food despite not knowing its ingredients or how it was made—a parallel, I guess, to fashion retailers tricking us into wearing cheap clothing made by child labor.

When he started parading his shame lunch onto the stage, the only thing I could think of was: I’ve eaten that. I’ve eaten that, too. 

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been on food stamps, and even afterwards I’ve kept my food costs on the relatively low end, and even though I no longer buy those giant bags of frozen dumplings or the cheap chicken under the heat lamp, I have absolutely eaten those foods or their equivalents. He didn’t even bring out the cheapest food he could have found; there wasn’t any ramen, for example, and there wasn’t any dusty box of Minute Rice that tastes like sand.

I didn’t know what to think, during that parade of food that Oliver presented as something he wanted to force CEOs to eat because he thought it was, like, super gross, I guess. I wondered how many of the people watching his YouTube had ever eaten a gas station flauta. I haven’t, but that’s only because I prefer the pizza, where you can get two slices for $2. I mean, let’s be serious here: I was still eating gas station pizza as a cheap meal two years ago, and if I get broke enough in the future, I’ll do it again.

I don’t have an answer for this, because it’s very hard. I know that my clothing is made from sweatshops and I know that my food is made from equally cheap, often equally exploited labor, and I know that safety standards for both food and clothing production are often far lower than we as consumers would like them to be (have you noticed the recent outbreak of listeria in everything). I also know that I can’t do anything about it with my current income, and even if I doubled my income I probably wouldn’t be able to find a lot of non-exploited-labor products to buy.

I know all of this, and I don’t have an answer, and we didn’t have an answer when I was a youth group leader, and Oliver doesn’t have an answer, and it seems like the answer is “stop relying on child labor, pay people better wages, and make safer clothing factories,” but I can’t do a thing about it except maybe buy thrift-store clothes.

More than that, to get to the position where you have enough income to make decisions about where you shop and what you eat based on something besides “is this the cheapest one?” you need fast fashion. You need that $12.99 blouse that you are going to carefully handle so it lasts a full year, because you need something to wear to work. The same people who are eating gas station pizza are also taking the time to pick their “good clothes”—the $9.99 black T-shirt that can pass for professional—out of the laundry so they don’t accidentally end up in the dryer, because we know what dryers do to fast fashion. I still do that. I still take as much care as I can on cheap clothes that are barely worth caring for, because I worry that I won’t be able to afford new clothes when they wear out.

I don’t have an answer. But I didn’t like John Oliver’s segment this week.

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