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ourselves to be generous people as we assuage our guilt about buying new clothing by giving away our slightly worn or out of date cast offs to charity but the net effect is a global economy turned upside down.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.
Despite my rantings about sustainability, I’ve discovered I have a long, long way to go even though I’ve made much progress. One of the best websites to find a good overall look at your personal & family sustainability footprint is Consumer Consequences . After you input your information you have the ability to compare yourself with others in different categories: house, energy, transportation, food, etc. It helped me identify which areas I should make more efforts in the coming year.
I’ve been reading online the NPR special report “Consumed” that was broadcast November 2007 and highly recommend checking it out:
Its goal is to answer the question, “Is the consumer economy sustainable?” in a serious way. They tackle the question in a comprehensive manner, with a lot of breadth but, if you don’t want to be overwhelmed, just choose one or two that most interest you.
A partial list of the featured topics: ecological footprint, landfills and the waste disposal sector, consumer debt, air pollution, freegans, marketing, junk mail, energy independence, the effect of consumer culture on mental and emotional well-being, carbon tax, food miles, fashion obsolescence, the green economy, e-waste, clean tech, globalization, Bhutan’s happiness index.
Interesting things to ponder as we consider resolutions for 2009.
A recent e-mail chain started:
“Are we Americans as dumb as we appear — or — is it that we just do not think?
While the Chinese, knowingly and intentionally, export inferior and even toxic products and dangerous toys and goods to be sold in American markets, the media wrings its hands and criticizes the Bush Administration for perceived errors.
Yet 70% of Americans believe that the trading privileges afforded to the Chinese should be suspended.
Well, duh..why do you need the government to suspend trading privileges?
SIMPLY DO IT YOURSELF, AMERICA!!…….”
It asks why not make real Easter eggs instead of purchasing plastic ones and goes on to propose an embargo on buying Chinese from 6/4/08-7/4/08.
The message above is somewhat reactionary and and oversimplifies the eco-political situation, but it has many nuggets of truth and guages the frustration of much of America.
As I see it:
Americans are not dumb but….. many do not think, many are not willing to do without having something cheap immediately despite the the fact that that it was made poorly or by captive slave labor.
We do not need plastic eggs or numerous other plastic tchotkes. Many won’t take the time (& receive the ultimate satisfaction) of creating an intricate Easter egg (or needlepoint holiday stocking). We have lots of inexpensive holiday decorations and then complain about how long it takes us to undecorate. We have too much. We are asking the government to legislate what we are unwilling to do for ourselves – say “no”.
We do not need the government to suspend trading privileges. That is the beauty of a market economy which China, India and the rest of the world have embraced. The power is all in our hands as consumers. We must find substitutes for incessant purchasing and become the pioneers we once were. Use the time we spend shopping to instead create something, cook something from scratch, learn a new skill, nurture relationships by our presence to others nearby or write a letter or e-mail to those far away.
Don’t stop on July 4. As you vacation this summer, don’t buy a souvenir unless it is made in the state or country you are visiting. At home seek out farmers markets, roadside food stands & small local shops for not only foods that directly benefit the farmers but also non-food items such as locally made soaps, crafts.
Repair: Fix it yourself, or trade skills with a friend or neighbor, keep local tailors & cobblers in business. We just went shopping for a suitcase and paid a little more for one with a true lifetime repair warranty (disclosure, it was made in Thailand). (Victorinox and Briggs & Riley both offer that warranty)
Re-think fashion: buy less but of better quality that lasts longer, shop local craft fairs (but look at labels) thrifts stores. Accessorize, trade. Learn to sew, knit, crochet, quilt. Let’s bring back old-fashioned American ingenuity & creativity. This may not always be easy but the important things in life never are.