Clothes are on my mind.
Last month, in a tragedy that knocked me breathless when I heard about it, over a thousand garment workers lost their lives when the factory they were working in – in which dangerous cracks had very recently been spotted and ignored – collapsed and crushed them.
No one can have failed to be moved by it. And yet mixed up with my grief for the families and colleagues of those who died was an uncomfortable sense of guilt. Bangladesh’s garment industry sews many of the clothes that end up in my wardrobe. It’s the drive for cheaper clothes and greater profit margins that can lead to tragedies like this to happening.
Three years ago I went to Bangladesh on a work trip, to visit organisations working with disabled people and those who have been affected by leprosy. As we left Dhaka after the first few days and drove north to visit a rural project for visually impaired children, we drove past mile after mile of factories. “This is where they make all the clothes”, my driver leant back and told me. The streets were clogged that morning with traffic as tens of thousands of people headed to work in cars and buses and rickshaws. I was relieved when we finally inched past the last factory and headed into the countryside.
There are more than 4 million Bangladeshi’s who work in the garment industry. They may earn a shockingly small amount each day, but clearly the answer is not to shut down the factories and remove their small livelihood completely. It’s not so simple, because the right thing to do is to pay them more, to put more money into health and safety – and that means higher prices for consumers and a smaller profit margin for the factory owners and clothing companies. Greed is a powerful force to counter.
I don’t know about this issue in great detail but there are some good articles circulating:
- The Problem of Evil is Hanging in your Closet – by Zack Hunt, for A Deeper Story
- Pressure Tells on Retailers and Governments – BBC Article on the new measures being adopted by clothing companies (by Andrew North)
- Take action and demand justice for victims of Bangladesh building collapse – an article by War on Want
At the same time, I watched a video that went viral this week, called “Fitch the Homeless”. The video is one man’s response to the disgusting clothing brand that is Abercrombie & Fitch. (side story: we walked past their store in Paris and the stink from the cheap perfume they were pumping out the doors made me gag for a good 20 metres beyond the store). A&F have claimed that they only want the “cool kids” to wear their clothes; apparently they burn any of their clothes that don’t sell to ensure they don’t get given to people that don’t fit their branding.
I found the video amusing when I started watching it, but felt a little uneasy as it continued. The basic idea of the man who made it, was to buy up all the A&F clothing he could find in thrift stores and give it to the homeless living in Skid Row in LA. It seems like an ok idea at first glance – homeless people often are in need of clothing, and surely this is just a funny way to make a point to A&F that we don’t care for their policies?
It was only later, when I watched tweets coming through from an outraged Suzannah, that I realised why I had felt uneasy. The homeless are not treated with much dignity in this video. He hardly stops to speak to them, hands them items of clothing, seemingly without checking whether it fits or it is what they need. There’s no attempt at relationship, at explanation of the campaign. They’re just a tool in the point he’s making. Not people worthy of love and respect.
Now perhaps he did all that and it just didn’t get recorded. Perhaps he had conversations with each person, checked the clothing fit, asked them if they’d mind him filming… but then that should have been shown. We have a low enough opinion of homeless people in our society that these right approaches need to be shown, not assumed.
Some further reading, if you’re interested:
- Suzannah Paul’s article: Help or Harm? Power, intent and objectification.
- Heather’s perspective, as someone who was homeless for a year: Cool? I was Freakin’ Freezing
- Six Reasons the #fitchthehomeless Campaign is Problematic by Kristen Howerton
Yesterday I went shopping on the way home from a meeting. I’m leaving on my trip to Uganda and Burundi next week (next week!!!!) and I needed to buy a few basic items – summer t-shirts and skirts mostly – to replace what didn’t survive since last summer.
I don’t enjoy shopping much, so I don’t tend to go often. And yesterday only confirmed to me how frustrating and irritating I think it is. Every t-shirt or top I tried on was so thin you could clearly see my bra through it. The idea, when buying summer clothes for a trip to a country on the equator, is surely not to have to layer under top underneath it just to stay decent?? I imagine it’s a mixture of a trend I don’t get and don’t like, and an attempt to save money buy producing super thin clothes.
It frustrates me most because I want to be a good steward of my resources, and when I buy clothes from many of the high street stores here, they rarely last longer than a season, if that. They’re just not that fantastic quality. And when they’re see-through too?
And then I add to that the knowledge that I know very little about where my clothes are coming from – don’t know how they were made, sourced, who’s hands made them and if they were paid well enough to send their kids to school, whether they were allowed a lunch break and safe conditions to work in. This worries me hugely.
I read another article today, about the trend of giving second hand clothes to thrift stores in the US (a practise that’s also common in the UK, but not so much here in Luxembourg I think). The quick purchases we make and regret later. The clothes we never wear and so decide to get rid of. It’s a massive massive waste. Our ability to turn up a charity store and hand in a bin bag of clothes may make us feel better because we don’t see those clothes any more, we assume it’s all good now. But we need to start asking more questions, challenging ourselves more about whether this whole process – from factory to shop to home to thrift shop to recycling centre – is it really ethical? Is it really a good use of our resources. The uncomfortable answer is no.
I’m not sure there’s a simple solution to all this. It’s not to just stop buying in these stores, I think. It won’t cause them to change their practices. And we shouldn’t not donate our unused clothing. But something has to change. And maybe it starts with me. It starts with my not buying badly-made clothes that will not last the season. It starts with me making wise choices about what clothes I actually need. It starts with me looking up, through organisations like Labour Behind the Label and War on Want, where my favourite stores source their clothes and how they treat their workers.
And it also starts with us being willing to put our money where our mouth is – if I’m willing to pay a little extra to buy fairtrade coffee and bananas at the supermarket, surely I should apply the same standards to all my purchases?
- The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes, by Elizabeth L. Cline, for Slate
- The Shelf Life of Clothes Donated to Thrift Stores, at From Two to One
- Ethical Style: Where do my used clothes go? at Good
Goodness, this is lots to think about and my head is spinning just a little bit right now. But I’m really convicted that this should not be an issue I forget. The tragedy of the building collapse in Bangladesh should not be allowed to fade from my memory. And I want to be intentional about the way in which I buy and wear my clothes, how I use my resources.
I’d love if you have any tips or ideas or comments on any of these issues to share with me. Has the news recently prompted you to re-examine your wardrobe?