Where are You Wearing?

So, it all started a few months ago when I traveled to Phnom Penh with Andrew. One of my favorite places to shop is Russian Market, a paradise for shopaholics out for a deal (and purgatory for those struggling with claustrophobia). The big draws of Russian Market are the tourist souvenirs and cheap clothes.

It was the promise of a cheap wardrobe overhaul that drew me on that occasion. On any given day, you can find clothes from all the major retailers in the USA for sale at dirt-cheap prices at Russian Market: Target brands like Merona, Gap, Old Navy, H&M, Zara, Mango, Banana Republic, and many more. It's like being back in an American shopping mall (except for air conditioning, wide aisles, and any semblance of a relaxing and organized shopping experience).

The clothes are piled high and hanging on racks along the wall. The aisles are so narrow, two people have to squeeze past each other. I refuse to go there after 12pm because the heat is so stifling inside.

Inside Russian Market

So I managed to bargain my way to 5 Gap t-shirts, one Zara cardigan, and two skirts with Chinese-sounding names on the tag, all for $27. Twenty-seven dollars - cheaper than even a thrift store could give you in the States.

After I went back to the hotel, I stared at my new clothes, thinking, Why were they so cheap? How could anyone sell clothes so cheap and still make a living?

For starters, Cambodia has 552 garment factories employing over 300,000 workers. That's a lot of people, and a lot of factories. In my experience, many of the factories are on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. We've driven by during lunch breaks or as the workers are getting off work, and streams of workers, mostly young women, pour out of the gates, going home or grabbing a bowl of rice before heading back to their sewing machines.

In the local newspapers, there were several reports last year of factory workers fainting on the job en masse. There are so many different possible causes - exhaustion, poor nutrition and dehydration, overexposure to garment chemicals, poor ventilation in the factories - that it's quite difficult to pinpoint one reason.

But if there are dozens of workers fainting in a single factory, it's probably not because the working conditions are ideal. The minimum legal wage for Cambodian workers was just recently raised to $75 a month - a pretty pathetic sum, considering that a single shirt or pair of pants a worker makes could sell for at least that much, and even worse when most women are supporting parents, children, and/or siblings on that amount.

So I started looking at where our clothes come from - following the chain from the H&M store in the mall to the factory that makes their clothes to the subcontractors who sometimes take work illegally make clothes at even lower rates.

I recently started reading Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline, a book that speaks about what cheap fashion is doing to our environment, American culture, and the people who make the clothes. After living overseas for 2 years and being around other Westerners, I believe that Americans are obsessed with buying as much stuff for as little money as possible (Black Friday, anyone?).

Unfortunately, we've decided that it doesn't matter what the bargain costs anyone else, as long as it's 2 for $8.99. Cline states in her book that Americans buy, on average, 64 new pieces of clothing every year - over one piece per week. And for most Americans, those clothes are cheap, bought on the $2 denim sales on Forever 21's website, with little expectation that it will last more than a year.

Then it happened - a factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing over 700 workers {note - since this was posted, the death toll went over 1,100 people} and injuring 2,500. I lived in Bangladesh for a summer back in 2004, and the poverty and human suffering I saw there far surpassed any I've seen in other countries.

After cracks appeared in the factory walls, police warned the owners they needed to evacuate the building. But the owners refused and told all workers to return to work. The building collapsed the next day.

Why were the owners so adamant about workers continuing to make clothes? For Western companies who were demanding products at low prices, in order to offer them as "deals" to Americans, so more people would buy their products, increasing their bottom line and making them more money.

It would be easy to point fingers at companies, but companies just respond to consumer demand. And American consumers want cheap clothes. Honestly, we don't want to know where our clothes come from, or that people may be making $3 a month as child laborers in a garment factory, or even risking their lives so I can buy a designer knock-off miniskirt for $14.99 at my local Deals R Us.

I have a lot more to say about this subject, but I think my philosophy about buying clothes is a work in progress. One of the first steps to making a difference is to simply be aware of what really goes on in the world around us. It is so easy in America to be blissfully ignorant of the realities of life for the other 90% of humanity on this planet.

As I may blog about later, I don't think that not buying clothes from retailers will solve all the problems; in fact, depriving women of those jobs may drive them to even worse ways to make money. But if companies respond to consumer demand, why don't we demand that workers be given a living wage and good working conditions, even if it costs us a couple extra dollars on our clothes? 

Or even more revolutionary, we might think about buying less. If we really are buying 64 pieces of clothing every year - say, one a week for simplicity's sake - what if we only bought one piece of clothing a month, at a higher price, from a company that actually invested in and cared about their workers?

If you're interested in seeing how companies stack up, check out the Responsible Shopper website, which rates different companies (including food and others) according to their environmental and labor practices and also, interestingly, what some of their CEOs make every year.

As I continue through Cline's book and doing my own research, I'm sure you'll hear more about my ideas and what I've discovered about where our clothes come from.

What do you think about it?

For part 2 in this 2-part series, click here!
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