Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What’s Your Tag Say?

Look at the tags on your clothing—where are your clothes made?  In China?  Central America?  The US?  Do you have any idea of who made your clothing and what his or (more likely) her life is like?

These are the questions that Kelsey Timmerman ( asked us at Peace Forum on March 24th when he came to speak about his book Where Am I Wearing?  A frequent international traveler, Kelsey wanted to know where his clothing was made and what the lives of garment workers are really like.  At Peace Forum, he shared stories of the people he met in garment factories and ideas about we can be thoughtful consumers of clothing.  The stories speak for themselves: In Bangladesh Kelsey met a mother who made only $25 a month and had to send her eldest son to work in the Middle East in order to make enough money to live on.  He met a couple in China who has not seen their son for 3 years because they work 100 hours a week at a garment factory.  As he explained to us, China’s workweek is limited to 42 hours, but factory owners simply tell workers that they must clock out and keep working . . . or new workers will replace them.  Friends at Common MealWe also heard the story of a woman in Cambodia who earns $50 a month as a garment worker.  While $50 is enough to support a single person in Cambodia, she supports 10 family members with this wage.

Kelsey’s writing is focused more on educated people about the consequences of their choices rather than suggesting a specific path they should take.  Strongly believing myself that the answer usually lies not in extremes but in balance, I appreciate this approach.  Kelsey makes it clear that there are no easy answers, but clothing choice is an ethical decision and consumers should make a conscious choice.

The “what ifs” are endless and not very encouraging: If Americans buy only US-made goods, foreign garment workers risk losing their jobs.  If workers demand higher wages, cost of production rises and American companies may look to other countries and other factories to fill their orders.  If American clothing companies offer slightly more expensive “fair-trade” items, they raise a simple question: “well if these jeans are made by workers getting a living wage . . . how are your other jeans made?”  Additionally, inspecting and certifying garment factories raises a whole host of issues about accountability and standards (for an example, see organic farming).  In the end, Kelsey suggests that consumers ask questions about where their clothing comes from, explore organizations that produce clothing at a living wage (see his website for a list), and make it clear to companies that they care about these issues.
Perhaps the best thing he pointed out to us is that sweatshops are not necessarily bad.  Timmerman visited a garment factory in Cambodia, but also visited the city dump, where people looked through trash to find recyclables.  Is working long hours in a garment factory better than digging through a dump? These jobs are a blessing for many workers, and sometimes a garment factory job in bad conditions or long hours is the difference between a family living and starving.

The speaker was preceded by a meditation on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which took place March 25th, 1911 (  Seminary students read the names of all 146 people who died.  It was a sobering way to begin a presentation, although2011 ESR Spirituality Gathering uplifting to think of the improvements in laws around organizing workers and demanding fair wage and good working conditions made after this tragedy.  The presentation was an important reminder that not every country has similar laws in place, and that we practice our ethics by how we choose to spend our money.

So, what is your clothes-buying philosophy?  If you had unlimited money (ha!), how would your habits change?  How do our spending habits relate to our (Christian) ethics?  What do you think ideal should happen with garment factories as globalization continues?  Are there areas other than clothing where you feel that your faith leads you to particular consumer decisions?

For myself, I buy clothing as infrequently as possible and frankly don’t worry too much about where it comes from.  I should.  Most of the “fair wages” kind of clothing I’ve seen out there does not fit my body well and is not suitable for working in a professional environment.  Given this, I appreciate Kelsey’s acknowledgement that garment factories in and of themselves are not evil, and agree that I would be willing to pay more for my clothing if I knew that money went directly to the workers.  Thoughts?

Valerie HurwitzValerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

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