Monday, August 10, 2009

Some Fair Trade Companies

There are a few companies that are invested in making sure that their products are fairly made. I have found some through internet research and a few were recommended in Timmerman's book. I have not made extensive searches of all of them, but a few seem interesting.

Fair Indigo has a lot of clothes that look like things I would want to wear, ethics aside. The company is based in Wisconsin, and sources from factories around the world. For each item, it tells wear it was made and who made it, guaranteeing that it was made ethically. Many of the factories are family-owned and provide impressive benefits for their workers: a salary well above the local average, paid leave, vacation time, maternity leave, etc. I ordered a sweater from them, and was very pleased with it. Also, their prices seem relatively reasonable, and currently a large portion of their items are on sale.

Patagonia is a company I had heard of previously. They are best known for their outdoor-oriented apparel, although they do make some dressy clothing too. Their prices are high, but the quality is impressive. Their site also includes the "Footprint Chronicles" that "allows you to track the impact of specific Patagonia products from design through delivery." Part of this is the environmental aspect, and part is the ethics of working conditions.

Mountain Equipment Co-Op (MEC) is similar to Patagonia. They are an outdoor equipment company that produces clothing, mostly made in Canada, where the company is based. I was impressed with some performance shirts they had made from the remnants of material in the factories, including the wicking material that is popular in running shirts. These shirts only cost $5 ($4 US) and were made from fabric that otherwise would be thrown away. The only downside to this company is that shipping is rather high and you also have to be the customs fee, since it's being shipped from Canada.

The downside to shopping online is, of course, the environmental impact. It is more fuel efficient to buy from a local store, where goods have been shipped in bulk, rather than having UPS fetch your sweater from Wisconsin and haul it down to NC. However, if our overall purchases are reduced, and we buy sparingly when we need something (I didn't need the sweater, but I'm getting better at distinguishing needs and wants), then perhaps our overall carbon expenditures will be lessened.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Review: Where am I Wearing? by Kelsey Timmerman

Due to my interest in the clothing industry, I did some online research and came across Kelsey Timmerman's book, Where am I Wearing? A Global Tour of the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes. The premise of the book is a quest to track down the origin of each item of Timmerman's typical ensemble: his shirt, underwear, pants, flip-flops, and shorts. His goal is to talk to someone who works in the factory who made the item, someone who could possibly have made it themselves. He wants to get a sense of what that person's life is like. His first trip, to Honduras where his shirt was made, he counts a failure. A fleeting encounter with a garment industry worker named Amilcar makes him realize that he was not fully prepared to truly uncover the gritty details. Subsequent trips to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China are more successful. In each of these countries, he meets individuals who made his clothes. Or if not his clothes, they make our clothes (in some cases it was impossible to track down the exact factory, or the company moved, closed, or otherwise was inaccessible). The encounters that he has with these individuals are interesting: in some cases, he plays the benefactor - he gives Amilcar the shirt he is wearing, in Bangladesh he takes 20 some street children to an amusement park, in Cambodia, he takes a group of young female garment workers bowling. More often than not, however, they seem to be his benefactors - they cook for him, let him stay in their homes, teach him about their culture and country. In each case, they provide him access to information that he could not have otherwise obtained.

The conditions he encounters range. In Bangladesh, child labor exists, but, often it is a better alternative than what the children may be doing otherwise. In fact, many children indicated that they wanted to work, needed to work in the factories. They will be working somewhere - a labor-free childhood is not possible in their economy, and the factory jobs are often safer and more lucrative than selling flowers on the street or begging. In Cambodia, he realized that by most world standards the conditions for workers there were relatively good. Many workers had contracts, but they were often exploited by labor sharks in order to get them. Many of the workers were young women from villages, who left their family farms in order to work in the city. A significant portion of their earnings were sent back to the families, although the women themselves were only able to return for visits twice a year. Regardless, contributing to their family income is a priority. In China, he met a couple who had left their 13 year old son with his grandfather in their village so they could work in a shoe factory in the city. Although at first the couple recites to Timmerman the regulation hours they work in a day - between 9 and 12. Later, after they realize he is not a customer for the factory, they reveal the truth. They work between 80 and 100 hours a week, seven days a week. They are often forced to work off the clock, providing free labor. Complaints would lose them their jobs.

Timmerman's account of his travels is intriguing. He is not an activist. In fact, he makes fun of the die-hard American activists who perform die-ins (where they pretend to be corpses in order to gain the attention of lookers-on) and who chant slogans like "Diet, cherry , or vanilla, Coca-Cola is a killa." Timmerman doesn't see these tactics creating much change. On the other hand, Timmerman himself doesn't offer any earth-shattering new solutions himself. He makes the point that boy-cotting a company for human rights violations of its factory workers doesn't help the workers. Often they lose their jobs and are left worse off than they were before. He urges awareness: know where your clothes are made; and he recommends several companies that are fair-trade.

Timmerman's work is useful for its balanced view on the garment industry. He makes it clear that he had no particular agenda for his quest. His reporting puts a human face the industry that is not over-sentimentalized, but feels authentic and personal. He is able to put these workers in a context of their economies and national histories. Ultimately, Timmerman advocates, not guilt - which seems inevitable when we compare our wealth and resources with those who make our clothes - but awareness and compassion.

Personal Bests

This has been a couple of days of personal bests in running for me. Monday I ran my best 2.1 miles - 23:48, and today I ran my best 1 mile - 8:59. These are probably not very impressive to anyone who has been running seriously, but they are good for me. When I began running in February, I couldn't make it all the way around my apartment complex. Now I love running. I went running everyday that I was on vacation, and I run at least three times a week now. I have had many fewer migraines, and I feel good. Running could be the best anti-depressant available.