Sunday, July 5, 2009

Who Are You Wearing?

I have recently made some choices about how I spend money. These decisions have been influenced by a number of things - my growing interest in sustainable eating (local, organic); reading Jesus for President (I don't agree with everything in the book, but their point about the marketplace is well taken); generally becoming more aware of the global condition through reading books like Enrique's Journey.

I remember exactly how I became aware of sweat-shops. In eighth grade, the special news program that was provided for our classes, Channel 1, had a story on sweat-shops. However, the focus was on Nike shoes (which I couldn't afford) and soccer balls (which I never played with), and the message that Americans were enjoying goods at the expense of children in other countries didn't exactly sink in.

Several months ago, I read a book called The Wal-Mart Effect, which was interesting if confusing (the author's position seemed a bit vague); in it, the author details how Wal-Mart has shaped the American economy and how business is done - the idea is to go to any lengths to purchase goods as cheaply as possible - which sounds good for American shoppers: that's why we can buy T-shirts for $4.99 and underwear in packs of 10. The person it is not so good for is the worker who makes those cheap products. In the book, the author tells the story of a woman who worked in a sweat-shop that made blue jeans to be sold to Wal-Mart. The conditions were horrible - she was not making a living wage, and the quota of jeans demanded of her meant that she worked many hours without breaks. In one horrible anecdote, she told of how a cruel boss was dissatisfied with her work, so he ripped the jeans from her sewing machine and beat her with them. It is entirely possible that this story was exaggerated or fabricated. Perhaps I am the naive reader of sensationalized tales of woe. But the thought that the very jeans I was wearing had at some point been used to beat the person who made them was nauseating.

I have to confess that, although this book changed my thinking, it did not change my habits. I did stop shopping at Wal-Mart, but I continued to buy from Target and other retailers, knowing that their practices, although enabled by Wal-Mart, are no better. I want this to change. I currently have more clothes in my closet than some people will ever see in their lifetime.

I feel that this is particularly important for Christians to consider. How can we claim to love everybody and desire to show that love if we continue to turn a blind eye to practices that so diminish the quality of life of those people? I am afraid that we have made frugality into a cardinal virtue in the church. It seems so very American, so very patriotic in a way, so very good to always be on the look out for the best deal, to get as much as we can for as little as we can. We call this frugality, thriftiness, and conservatism without recognizing that it is the grossest form of indulgence and excess. I hear so many people who say with such pride - "I only shop at Wal-mart - you can find anything there cheaper than anywhere else." (Isn't there a country song with a verse along those lines?) The implication is that we who shop cheaply are smarter and better - we are the salt of the earth. The hard-working, American, blue collar, traditional values kind of people. What isn't being considered is that someone else is paying for our ability to buy cheap.

At first after reading and thinking a bit, I felt faced with a rather bleak prospect. Capitalism seems an inevitable evil. The only option looked like some type of live off the grid, churn your own butter, commune. And I'm not saying that that's still not the best option. But it is not one that I am willing or able to attain at this point. Rather, I am trying to initiate steps in the right direction. I have all the clothes I need. And that stings a bit. I love buying clothes, I love clothes in general (I'm writing a dissertation on dress, you know). But I have enough clothes. When I find that there is something I need, I plan to try to buy second-hand first. Recycling clothing in this way keeps more money from being spent on unfair labor and it keeps perfectly usable materials from going to the landfill. If I can't buy second-hand, I plan to look for retailers that have been certified as practicing fair-trade - and from a cursory glance at the internet, it looks like there are plenty of options out there.

This will no doubt be hard. I know that possibly in just a few weeks, I will be standing in Target gazing longingly at a pretty dress that only costs $25. Or my sister will want to go on a shopping trip and I'll be faced with the prospect of following her from store to store empty-handed. But this is important. Not that anyone ever asks (I walk so few red carpets), but if they did want to know who I was wearing, I would be able to answer that I was not wearing the underprivileged women and children of the world.


A.C. Davis said...

This is a great post. Unfortunately the problem of cheap labor extends beyond clothes to just about every product we use, if the product was made in a country that doesn't enforce labor laws. Jym and I sometimes talk about how it's virtually impossible to purchase anything that doesn't somehow exploit someone. But making a commitment to investigate origins and to avoid unneeded purchasing is a great start on the road to more ethical shopping. I need to do more of this too.

Stephanie said...

@ A.C. Davis

I get really overwhelmed thinking about how everything - every product - is probably connected to some form of exploitation. That's usually when I start thinking about the Churn-Your-Own-Butter Commune. At this point, I am trying to do with less altogether, and really focus on the clothing industry.