I don’t like shopping for clothes. Usually I buy my clothing at thrift stores where the selection is limited, the quality often high, and the price always unbeatable. But if I had my way, someone else would buy my clothes and then just say to me, …
I don’t like shopping for clothes. Usually I buy my clothing at thrift stores where the selection is limited, the quality often high, and the price always unbeatable. But if I had my way, someone else would buy my clothes and then just say to me, “Wear this.”
Trouble is, that person would likely be my wife Pam. If she had her way, I’d be dressed to stand out like a blinking neon light. So I buy my own clothes.
Occasionally, though, Pam will say to me, “Sweetheart, you have just got to have such-and-such and I know you can’t find it at the thrift shop. Come with me!” Then we go to Dillard’s or Belk’s, which we did last week.
I headed home with two shirts and a pair of Bermuda shorts. Then I thought of the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh on April 24. A building containing several clothing manufacturers collapsed during the morning rush hour, killing 1,129 people. I remembered reading that Bangladesh had almost no building codes and the ones it did have were not enforced. I also remembered reading that several major American retailers, including Benetton and Walmart, sold clothing manufactured at Rana Plaza. I wondered: Where had my new clothing been made?
When I got home, I checked the labels. One garment was made in China, another in Sri Lanka, and the third in Bangladesh.
How did I feel about having bought clothing probably stitched in Asian sweat shops that ignore worker safety and pay workers about $1.50 per day with no benefits?
Several related questions popped into my mind. Should I be more intentional about buying goods made in America? Buying clothing from Asia takes jobs away from U.S. workers. But when choosing a shirt, I’ve always considered color, quality, and price, but never where it was made. All other things being equal, I’d buy American, but all other things are never equal. And could I even find an American-made shirt these days? Nearly 98 percent of clothing sold in the U.S. last year was imported.
And then there’s the question of why I should be more concerned about American workers than Bangladeshi workers. I think of myself as a citizen of the world essentially and a citizen of the United States incidentally. Everyone everywhere is my brother or sister. I want to be generous and fair to all people, regardless of nationality. So what’s wrong with buying something that provides a job for a worker in Asia?
But what of the meager wages paid to Asian workers and the deplorable and dangerous working conditions there? It’s almost a form of slavery. Bangladesh has the lowest minimum wage in the world at $38 per month. Those jobs are not a road out of poverty for Bangladeshi textile workers. By buying a garment made there, am I supporting an injustice I’d never support here at home?
On the other hand, would Bangladeshis be better off without those low-paying jobs? In his book Where Am I Wearing? Kelsey Timmerman writes of the time he told a Bangladeshi textile worker that some Americans hesitate to buy goods made there. The worker quickly replied, “If people don’t buy, I’m unhappy because I wouldn’t have a job.”
And finally, why does buying a shirt have to be such a complicated decision? Must everything become a moral issue? Why can’t we just walk into a store, find what we want at a price we’re willing to pay, and buy it?
Similar questions arise regarding the food we eat. Over half the cocoa in the chocolate America consumes comes from the Ivory Coast where workers earn $300 per year. Just one cent of the $3 you pay for a latte at Starbucks goes to the farmer in Colombia who grew the coffee.
When I buy something, I can’t be aware of all that went into bringing it to me. I usually don’t even know what questions to ask or to whom to address them. And I certainly can’t rectify all the inequities of international trade. But surely I can do something. Perhaps readers can tell me what. Please send your suggestions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard H. Schmidt is a retired Episcopal priest, editor and author who lives in Fairhope. He can be reached at email@example.com.