Clothing contributes to poverty in two ways.
- First, new clothing is sewn predominantly in sweatshops around the world, often by women that are permanently enslaved to pay off a “debt” for the “privilege” of a “well paying” job – NOT.
- Second, the used clothing business has effectively destroyed native garment industries in much of Africa and other developing countries. American cotton is so highly subsidized that our used clothing can be purchased more cheaply by them than those made with native fabrics and sewn by native seamstresses.
“T-Shirt Travels”is a documentary that should make us think twice about the easy fix. If you don’t have time to read the entire article or want to explain it easily to students here is a quick visual. Over time many of the links are disappearing; here is one for the book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy” The movie Life and Debt tells of the Free Trade Zone in Jamaica where workers who sew for American corporations to earn the legal minimum wage of $30 U.S./week. Sweatshops, with the approval of their governments, offer incentives to foreign clothing designers which are allowed to bring in shiploads of material tax-free and are immediately transported out after sewing. Over 10,000 women currently work under sub-standard work conditions. In order to ensure the employment offered, Jamaica agreed to the stipulation that no unionization is permitted in the Free Trade Zones. When the women attempt to organize they are fired and blacklisted to prevent them from working again. The jobs move on to next developing country desperate for work.
A new book Fugitive Denim: a Human and Sensible Approach of Global Textile Trade by Rachel Louise Snyder tells part of the complex story of the textile trade, now & historically, acquired by traveling around the world and talking to workers and professionals in the trade. United Students Against Sweatshops at 25 universities are now boycotting or severing ties with Russell Athletics/Jerzees until the company re-opens the Jerzees de Honduras facility at full capacity, re-hires all union workers and complete the collective bargaining process. Also, individual initiatives such as Ethix Merch attempt to link small manufacturers with buyers.
Americans consider ourselves to be generous people as we assuage our guilt about buying new clothing by giving away our slightly worn or out of date cast offs to charity but the net effect is a global economy turned upside down. What to do?
- Worn thin? Goodwill or Salvation Army will turn into rags.
- Stained? Sew or iron a patch, applique. Tie die the garment – stains get lost in the patterns. Missing buttons, open seams, broken zippers? Fix yourself, or take it to your dry cleaners or find a local seamstress/tailor. Keeps Americans employed at decent wages. If you’re crafty, here are ideas for recycling old Tees .
- Gained/lost weight? Style dated? A good tailor can take in or let out seams and can even re-fashion professional clothing to reflect current fashion trends
- Just itching for a change or something different? Look for clothing swaps online or plan an event with friends
If you must buy new, search out items made of organic or sustainably harvested fabrics by fairly paid and treated workers. This 2013FairTradeDirectory has links to many online ethically traded clothing items. Be willing to pay more for both American /union/Fair Trade made goods.
The fashion industry itself is just discovering Zero Waste and trying to apply it to the cutting room floor. Parsons New School for design will offer a course in zero waste.
Ethical doesn’t have to mean giving up style. Ethical In Style will send you the latest trends daily via FB or Twitter.