Style: When US-Made Goods Aren't Ethical: The Prison Labor Hipster Button-Down

Ya'll, I was really excited to find out out about Made Collection, a site that curates US-made (and delightfully hipstery) goods under a single online storefront. There are plenty of great brands making good-looking clothing in ethical ways, but I've found it hard, in the past, to locate them.

I was on the hunt yesterday for a few back-to-school pieces (things I can teach in that aren't uncomfy), when I came across the Hickory Shirt by Oregon Correction Enterprises. It's basically my dream shirt. I'm bonkers for railroad stripes (I WAS BORN THIS WAY). It comes in a comfy men's size Small. It's made in the US. And it's $36. Wait. What? Because of their relatively complicated construction, US-made button-down shirts usually cost at least twice that.

Maybe you saw this coming before I did: the shirt is made by prison laborers.  Hence the brand name. Hence the low price tag. Just to offer a frame of reference, prisoners "working" in the US are paid a minimum of wage of 23 cents per hour. And a maximum of $1.15. 

Oregon Correction Enterprises "employs" incarcerated people to manufacture a variety of products, including this shirt, which is obviously designed to adhere to hipster aesthetic I love so much. Even weirder is the label reading "Prsn Blu", which I guess is supposed to be funny?

While some argue that "putting prisoners to work makes prisons safer", I'm not interested in buying goods made by captives, regardless of the conditions of their captivity. The Prison Policy Center provides a sobering fact sheet about prison labor in the US.

This was the reminder I needed that US made and ethically made are not truly synonymous.  As marketers identify that hipsters like me will pay a premium for ethically-manufactured products, I'm sure plenty of brands will turn to prison labor, and with much less transparency than the "Prsn Blues" label affords.

The question of how to respond as a consumer to issues like this, beyond demanding more information from reluctant companies, is unclear to me. It certainly damages the ethos of Made Collection as well-- their connection to prison labor makes it clear that profiting from the image of US-made branding is a much greater priority than adhering to their "ethical" mission.  Just like greenwashing, this is bullshit. It's an abuse of human rights, it's anti-union and it's dishonest to consumers. What a timely Labor Day eye-opener.

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