Ways of Seeing: Our clothing has us in a bind
I am haunted by the photos of the April 24 garment factory building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where over 1,100 people died. Certainly there is no shortage of disturbing photos in the news from all over the world, but these have a particular tug for one simple reason — these people work for me. And I expect they work for you, too.
We pay the retailers who pay the distributors who pay the factory owners who pay the workers $38 a month to work with hazardous materials in unsafe conditions to make our clothes. It’s a thriving system. Bangladesh alone has about 4,500 garment factories that make clothing for global retailers. The photos we’ve seen lately show some of the true cost of cheap and plentiful clothing.
I’m not looking to pin blame for this situation solely on you or me. It’s almost impossible to avoid buying imported clothes. I did a little market research lately at a Target store; I could not find even one item made in the USA. Same result at a Walmart, at a Coldwater Creek, and at a used clothing store for children in Barre. Do a check of your closet. Here’s how the labels in my closet read: Vietnam, China, Jordan, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Indonesia, Peru, India and only a handful of items made in the USA. CNN Money reports that 98 percent of clothing sold in the U.S. is made overseas.
How can we stop using our money to support a system that isn’t good for the workers, their communities or the planet?
There is a better way of doing business, and that’s the movement for Fair Trade Certification. You might have seen the Fair Trade logo on coffee or chocolate or bananas, for these were the products first imported with Fair Trade Certification. More recently, certification has been earned by producers of grains, body care products, flowers, honey, herbs and spices, nuts and oils, sugar, tea, wine, soccer balls and clothing.
What is Fair Trade? It’s more than higher wages for workers, and it’s not necessarily organic. Its three-part mission focuses on paying fair wages for quality goods, providing safe conditions for workers, and developing community resources for healthy and sustainable lives.From the website of Fair Trade USA, here’s a summary of the Fair Trade principles:
• Fair prices and credit: Democratically organized farming groups receive a guaranteed minimum floor price (or the market price if it’s higher) and an additional premium for certified organic products. Farming organizations are also eligible for pre-harvest credit.
• Fair labor conditions: Workers on Fair Trade farms enjoy freedom of association, safe working conditions and sustainable wages. Forced child and slave labor are strictly prohibited.
• Direct trade: With Fair Trade, importers purchase from Fair Trade producer groups as directly as possible to eliminate unnecessary middlemen and empower farmers to develop the business capacity necessary to compete in the global marketplace.
• Democratic and transparent organizations: Fair Trade farmers and workers decide democratically how to invest Fair Trade premiums, which are funds for community development.
• Community development: Fair Trade farmers and farm workers invest Fair Trade premiums in social and business development projects like scholarships, schools, quality improvement and leadership training, and organic certification.
• Environmental sustainability: Harmful agrochemicals and GMOs are strictly prohibited in favor of environmentally sustainable farming methods that protect farmers’ health and preserve valuable ecosystems for future generations.
My rudimentary Internet searching skills turned up a lot more producers of Fair Trade Certified foods than clothing. If you wore only boxer shorts, T-shirts, scarves and bathrobes you could be fully Fair Trade clad, but your wardrobe might limit your activities and options in life!
But don’t be discouraged. As consumers, we have power and we can make a difference with our dollars. We don’t have to continue to support an exploitive system just to make our fashion statement.
We can buy less and keep it longer. Eighty-five percent of clothing ends up in a landfill, I heard on NPR today. What if you had half as many clothes as you do now? Would your quality of life be compromised?
We can shop at thrift shops, such as Round Robin and Neat Repeats, where the money earned supports community organizations.
We can learn about Fair Trade Certified companies. Use the Internet. Push your favorite stores to move in this direction. Write letters. Ask questions. Be persistent. What the Fair Trade movement has done for food, it could also do for clothing. Today we have boxer shorts, tomorrow we could have whole wardrobes! Why not?
Abi Sessions is a retired educator with three grown children and three grandchildren. She lives and gardens in Cornwall with her husband, Bill.
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