"Why Shop? Week": Shopping, Service-Learning, and Student Activism

by Kayann Short

First-year students often enter the university with little knowledge of life beyond U.S. borders. To help my students at the University of Colorado's Farrand Academic Program connect their lives with those of women globally, I created a service-learning practicum for my course, Women and Society. "Why Shop? Week" is a consumer awareness project linking individual consumption practices to women's labor and resource exploitation.

"Why Shop? Week" begins the Sunday before Thanksgiving with a community rally to introduce the concept of ethical consumption in the midst of the upcoming holiday shop-ping frenzy. To reach consumers in the simplest, most direct way, students have refined their message to three main points:

* Know the story behind the product - ask who makes it? who profits from it? who needs it?

* Exercise your economic power

* Consume less - don't buy what you don't need

"Why Shop? Week" students gain organizing skills through maintaining a website and coordinating local outreach events. They work with activists, politicians, and media representatives to share their message with the com-munity and beyond. They analyze how their own role in U.S. consumer cul-ture contributes to international exploitation. Finally, they create an alternative consumer framework focusing on ethical consumption.

"Why Shop? Week" grew out of the United Nations 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women's Platform for Action. Specifically, we focus on two Strategic Objectives in the Platform. The first, Strategic Objective F.1, assigns states responsibility to "[p]romote women's economic rights and independence, including access to employment, appropriate working conditions and control over economic resources." "Why Shop? Week" serves as a vehicle to educate consumers about salary inequities, gender role segregation, labor discrimination, collective bar-gaining repression, inhumane working conditions, and inadequate legislative protections for women workers, par-ticularly in U.S. sweatshops and trans-national free trade zones. Using infor-mation from human rights and women's non-governmental organizations, we attempt to engage in a dia-logue with consumers about these issues through our rally, website, and media outreach.

The second Strategic Objective we employ, J.1, calls for an "[i]ncrease [in] the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication." The question most frequently asked by students in this project is "Why doesn't anyone know about these problems?" By writing press releases, maintaining media contacts, updating the website, and conducting local radio and newspaper interviews, they experience firsthand the difficulty of accessing media with a complex and unpopular message. One of the lessons learned over the past three years has been the necessity of a "hook," something that catches the media's attention. These days, students protesting anything can seem a novelty, but staging an event that can be filmed or photographed - a "photo-op" - helps attract reporters. They also learn that not all media venues are the same. Our local pro-gressive radio station, for example, not only interviewed us but sent reporters to create a newspiece for Pacifica Network. On the other hand, while one of the Denver TV stations filmed our event, we were pre-empted by coverage of a pet immunization bill and the local football hero's record-setting win.

Our greatest challenge in this project has been to educate consumers about women's rights violations with-out overwhelming them. People in our well-educated community have some knowledge and curiosity about the world, but do not like feeling guilty or disempowered. More than just learning about a problem, they want to know what to do about it. Of course, the problems we are exposing have been created by huge, faceless governments and corporations against whom individuals often feel powerless. Yet we know from history that individuals can create social change, particularly when acting collectively.

To help consumers consider their own connection in international exploitation, we have designed a brochure, "And You Think You Had Hard Day?", outlining simple steps for making purchasing decisions. We have also created a website with links to allied organizations and campaigns (http://spot.Colorado.EDU/~shortk/whyshop.html). The website includes a postcard that can be sent to corporations asking them to take responsibility for the conditions under which their products - and profits - are made. These postcards and the accompanying list of corporate addresses are available at our rally as well.

One of the most successful components of the project is the decorating of shopping bags to visually capture the attention of shoppers strolling along our pedestrian mall. Hung on large frames and strung along tables and railings, the bags prove the perfect instrument for both showcasing student creativity and inciting consumer engagement. We use ads or photos from fashion magazines to create commentary on global resource disparity, labor exploitation, and worker oppression. For example, one bag featuring a model's body with the superimposed head of a sweatshop worker bears the heading "Miss Free Trade Zone" and includes statistics compiled by groups like the National Labor Committee, UNITE, and Sweatshop Watch.

Sometimes the bags comment on the ads themselves. One responded to the shoe ad slogan "All She Needs" with the question "Is This Really All Women Need?" Many of the bags connect labor exploitation in developing countries with harmful beauty standards in industrialized countries by exposing the dangers of the fashion and diet industries. For example, one bag linked anorexia with resource overconsumption by juxtaposing the emaciated body of a super model with the words "Consume Less. Umm, We Didn't Mean Food." A Web gallery highlighting these bags is planned for next year's project.

Events in previous years have included a Jeopardy-style gameshow featuring categories like "Sweatshops," "Wage and Land Distribution," and "Discrimination," and a skit with a sweatshop on one side of the stage and two college-aged shoppers on the other. The two scenes convened at the end of the skit as the shoppers threw "outdated" clothing out of their closets onto the heads of the exhausted workers. Skits like this are effective in both transmitting information to audiences and provoking discussion of complex issues.

This year students organized a rally at the downtown plaza that included an alternative fashion show entitled "Crimes of Fashion: Are They Worth It?" As models showcasing athletic, young executive, vacation, and evening fashions paraded down the makeshift runway to a driving beat, the first announcer would, for example, hype the chic style of an Adidas running suit, to which the second announcer would respond: "Speaking of jogging, Adidas can jog from country to country as their workers demand more money or better working conditions, while workers in athletic wear factories get their exercise running from the riot police who are sent in at the first sign of organizing."

Besides the fashion show, the rally also initiated community outreach by inviting speakers from the campus group CU Divest and a local social justice group, the Fair Trade Coalition. The audience was enthralled as a member of the local feminist theater group, Vox Femina, performed "She-Wrecks," the story of a mother so fed up with her children's consumer demands that she turns into a giant dinosaur who devours all technological devices. We plan to expand community involvement each year and hope that someday "Why Shop? Week" will become a national or even international event as other communities organize their own activities.

My main concern in developing "Why Shop? Week" was whether the project would merely reinforce a first world/third world paradigm in which students became the "saviors" of "less fortunate" women in "underdeveloped" countries or whether my students would recognize that the same discriminatory policies and structures exploiting women in export processing zones impact their own lives as well. So far, the latter has been true. First-year students do not feel particularly empowered. While they realize the privileges they have enjoyed as U.S. citizens and consumers, they worry about their futures within what they perceive as an unstable, uncaring global economy. They have had little experience creating social change or speaking out about their beliefs.

"Why Shop? Week" helps my students feel empowered to act collectively and individually. They often remark that the factory workers are young women their own age and find the lack of opportunity afforded these women the epitome of injustice. They view the courageous young women protesting working conditions or organizing for fair wages as role models for their own lives. As one student wrote, "The lives and rights of women would never see improvement if everyone were to ignore what doesn't directly affect them and "Why Shop? Week" is a tool we can use to break the silence. . . . Once consumers are educated and aware of the treatment of women workers in sweatshops they can put their knowledge to work through collective action." The same is true for students: once they understand they can act.

"Why Shop? Week" helps students consider a common, everyday activity - shopping - in a new light. They confront their own involvement in a system that depends upon inequities and discrimination. They gain practical organizing experience and skills, but they also gain knowledge that challenges reigning values and perspectives. This knowledge often leaves students initially uncomfortable and confused, but by working together they start to create a framework from which to approach women's rights on the individual, local, national, and global levels. Many students are inspired to continue their activism or international study, and some return as project interns the following fall. Perhaps most importantly, the project allows them to act as global citizens with an opportunity and a responsibility to speak out about the world in which they live.

[Kayann Short is a Senior Instructor with the Farrand Academic Program at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Her work focuses on workers' rights in the international human rights arena.]

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