“Ask a Priest: Is It a Sin to Buy Clothes Made in China?”

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Q: Is it a sin to buy clothing made in other countries like China, because the products might have been made in sweatshops under unfair conditions? It seems like almost everything is made in foreign countries. Also, if I already have clothing from other countries (most, if not all, of my clothing is), is it OK to continue wearing them? Thank you. –M.F.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Your basic question touches on something known as material cooperation in evil.

All of us somehow cooperate materially in evil. For instance, if I buy a coffee at McDonald’s, some of the tax I pay is probably going to fund a local town or county that uses some of that money to pay for police protection. That police protection, in turn, benefits an abortion clinic on the other side of town, since it allows the clinic to operate in relative security. So in a limited sense, I am involved in material cooperation in evil. But my intention is not to support the abortion clinic, my cooperation is miniscule (a fraction of those few cents of tax), and to not pay the tax would cause a lot of social turmoil. Thus I am not guilty of formal cooperation in evil, which would be sinful.

In other words, it is virtually impossible not to be involved in some kind of material cooperation in evil. The key thing, however, is that we don’t intend to do evil or support evil, and that the thing we do isn’t intrinsically evil. (Buying a coffee at McDonald’s is not intrinsically evil.)

Now, to your specific question. Buying an article of clothing from China might, at best, be very remote material cooperation in evil. It might not even be the case that unfair labor was involved; perhaps it was produced at a relatively humane factory.

Also, what might seem like a sweatshop to us might be a step up for a poor person whose only alternative is scratching out a living on a small plot of land. I don’t say this to justify exploitative businesses but to point out that it’s not always easy or helpful to try to impose Western, rich-nation standards on a developing economy.

Important, too, is your intention. Do you intend to support unfair labor practices? If you are pretty sure that clothes from a certain place were made by virtual slave labor, then you would surely want to think twice about buying them. If your intention is good or neutral, and you aren’t sure about the conditions under which they were made, then you might be able to buy an article from, say, China without scruples.

If you already have clothes from other countries, it seems a fault against poverty to toss them. So I think you could continue to wear them in good conscience, unless you would give scandal. You could also donate them to the poor.

Another factor worth keeping in mind is that we often work with imperfect knowledge. How do we know, for instance, that clothing made in the U.S. wasn’t produced in a sweatshop where undocumented workers were exploited? Such cases have been discovered.

None of this is to minimize the need for social justice. It’s just that social justice (that is, living wages and dignified work conditions) are not easy to achieve everywhere. This kind of thing is a work in progress, at best. Still, we do well to heed Pope Francis’ many exhortations to help the poor and to work toward just societies.

If you make an effort to buy things that were produced in dignified settings, then that is laudable. Just be aware, though, that it is virtually impossible to be 100% sure about those conditions being met.

Life is often a trade-off. We can tolerate certain things for the sake of avoiding worse alternatives. Recall that Jesus didn’t forbid payment of taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:17), even though presumably some of that tax money paid the wages of the Roman soldiers whose presence was so detested by the local people in ancient Palestine. Our Lord was probably aware that the alternative — to discourage payment of taxes — could have set off mayhem.

For more reading about material cooperation with evil, see this article. I hope some of this helps.

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