About three years ago, I read Kelsey Timmerman‘s Where Am I Wearing. Once I got over the jealousy of his amazing travel adventure, I spent quite some time going through my closet and drawers, checking the labels of all my clothes.
My suspicions were confirmed: my love for cheap bargains put me in the same basked as the least sustainable consumers on earth. I may eat free-range chicken and free-range eggs and free-range whatever else, but I’m still doing it in my Made in Bangladesh tshirt and Made in China jeans. So, I thought to myself, I’m failing at this citizen of the world thing.
And then I thought some more about what Kelsey Timmerman wrote in his book, especially his dialogue with the sweatshop worker who said it would be a disgrace for her and her colleagues if the western world stopped buying the garments she gets paid $0.00000001 (or something equally low) to make.
And then I got really confused (which happens really easily, anyway).
If filling my closet with $15 tops keeps these people employed, shouldn’t I just head to the mall right now instead of finishing this post?
Well, not quite.
No matter what the self-righteous western world thinks about it, the sweatshop worker is right: if we stop buying, they will lose their jobs. So that can’t be the best solution. But am I just holding onto this particular point because I want to somehow justify my love for clothing bargains? Quite possibly.
So the fact is that I’m still not sure what should be done. In an ideal world, companies would pay their workers better and that wouldn’t affect prices and consumers could happily buy the stuff they like without being supposed to feel guilty. In the real world, I’m not entirely sure what would work to improve the situation.
Recommending this book to you makes me feel ever so slightly less guilty about the top I’m wearing today. The label says made in China and it cost me about NZ$15, if I’m not mistaken. I bought it because I thought it was pretty and didn’t really think about where it had come from. I’m helping someone in China keep their job but it’s a shit job and they should have something better. My purchase isn’t helping them get anything better.
Reading that book, as well as Joe Bennett’s Where underpants come from, which I read shortly after, was eye-opening. I haven’t made as many changes to my consumer habits as I wish I had, since then, but it got me thinking about it often. The problem I have is the problem that so many people have: I can’t always afford to have the social conscience I wish I had.
A month or two ago, thanks the lovely Fatima, I found the IOU Project. I thought “well, if this isn’t the solution, then it’s at least a giant step in the right direction”. I can’t afford an entire wardrobe at those prices but, without going all patronising and high-horse-y on you, I think its our duty to invest in projects such as this one.
Or, at the very least, I should try to be a bit more frugal when it comes to cheap stuff I don’t actually need (this coming from the girl with 80+ pairs of shoes). And reading labels. I should do that more often too.
Today, for example, I’m wearing flats made in China, jeans made in China, a top made in China, a scarf made in India and a jacket made in China. Points for knowing a bargain when I see one: 10. Points for social responsibility in my clothing options: -5000.
(image credit: IOU Project)