Where Are You Wearing? Part 2

For part 1 in this 2-part series, click here.

Made in Cambodia
Creative Commons - by Andre van der Stouwe
Girl working in a Cambodian garment factory

A few weeks ago, I blogged about being aware of where our clothing comes from. This post flowed out of my growing awareness that it actually matters where our money goes, or more importantly, who it goes to.

And then the issue hit closer to home: a walkway at an Asic shoe factory outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia collapsed, killing 2 people and injuring 6.  Then five days later, a rest shelter at a factory where H&M clothes are made collapsed, injuring 23. The latter factory was an unapproved subcontractor, which means that H&M had contracted with a primary factory to make clothes.

The primary then sent part of the order to the secondary factory, unknown to H&M, because the secondary one could make those products cheaper than the primary one could - probably because they didn't have to measure up to the standards H&M holds their known contractors to.

These two accidents highlighted how difficult it can be to know where our clothes come from and what our money is supporting. Most people demand transparency and good stewardship of charities when they give money. People look up their ratings on different websites, seeing how much of their money goes to overhead versus project costs. They want to know their money is actually making a difference in people's lives and not causing more harm than good.

But when people go into the malls or Target, that demand for accountability goes out the window. One reason may be that it is incredibly difficult to know where our clothes came from. A tag that says "Made in Cambodia" says very little about where the textiles came from, who made it, and if they made it in fair working conditions and for how much.

To be thorough, one has to start in the cotton fields, one of the most common sources for clothing textiles. One of the top producers in cotton is Uzbekistan, which has a dark reputation for government-led child and forced adult labor and abuse rights in cotton production. Children, teachers, and adults are forced into the cotton fields to prepare and harvest crops, often with little or no wages. Other countries that lead cotton exports that are known to use child and forced labor include China, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Brazil.

Textiles are then sent to supplies across the globe to factories, where they are cut, made, and trimmed into rack-ready garments exported to the USA and Europe. Some factories that make garments using child and/or forced labor include India, China, Bangladesh, and Jordan.

So this means that the cotton t-shirt you bought last week in Forever 21, made in Bangladesh, could have been made from cotton harvested by a ten-year-old and sewn into a cheap product by a young woman making $30 a month and shipped to the US, bought by you, and carried home in a plastic bag with John 3:16 printed on the outside. 

(yes, I pick on Forever 21 a lot, maybe because they are one of the only companies who refuse to source their products ethically, have a horrible track record regarding human rights abuses, and who say they are "Christian".) 

And that shirt will probably end up in the garbage in 6 months because it is so poorly made.

Garment factory workers, Phnom Penh
Inside a Cambodian garment factory

What's my point? Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power. It's good for people to say, Oh yeah, I think sweatshops are bad, people should make good money. But if that belief doesn't translate into action, it's meaningless.

Or some people say, Well, I'm sure they're just happy to have a job - even though you yourself would never work 80-hour weeks for a non-liveable wage of $30 a month in appalling conditions.

Why should we allow lower standards for those living overseas? I don't mean, let's pay everyone US-grade minimum wage, because that really isn't a realistic or even helpful standard. But why shouldn't we expect US companies to ensure their products are coming from factories where workers make a living wage (i.e. they can support themselves and their families), have decent conditions (i.e. air flow, regular breaks, limited overtime), and are not insanely young?

There's been a big movement among the organic-local crowd for free-range beef and chickens and food coming from elsewhere than farm factories. People cried watching Food Inc., when they saw overcrowded chicken coops and steer living tail-to-mouth in three feet of manure, and they decided they didn't want to support appalling "working" conditions for those animals, among other health and economical reasons.

Even though they may never see where the free-range chickens live out their happy days, they feel better buying their package of chicken breasts with the free-range label on it. And people are willing to pay a few extra dollars for it.

Ok, maybe it's a long stretch to compare chickens and clothes. But if we can be so concerned about the food we eat, can we spare some of that thought and intentional spending to the clothes on our backs, too?

Yes, it's very complicated; there are so many different factors that go into our clothes. Companies are not always transparent or even sure themselves where their cotton comes from or if their factories subcontract the work out to worse factories. It doesn't mean you need to shop exclusively at Maggie's Organics or the thrift store (though it's not a terrible idea).

Applying this knowledge means something different for everyone. But maybe it starts with asking yourself when you walk through the doors of Gap or Wal-Mart or Target, where do these clothes come from? Who made them? And is that cheap deal worth the livelihood of someone on the other side of the world?

Because no one can make a living off $10 jeans.
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p.s. for ratings on hundreds of apparel companies on how they stand on human rights and labor abuses, check out the website Free2Work.