A couple of years ago I came face to face with the fact that most of the everyday items I use in the course of the day were probably made in a sweatshop. I came to this conclusion somewhat naturally, as I traveled the world to “help” the poor and came back to America and accrued more and more possessions.

 

 

When I would look at the tags on the backs of my T-shirt I would feel my heart sink as I saw a list of impoverished third world countries. The more I understood globalism and capitalism, the more I knew how these systems benefited the corporations and myself, but I knew they didn’t benefit the people who made my stuff. Nobody had to tell me this—it is common sense when assessed from a position of sustained profitability. In our quest for cheap goods, American consumers have led to an increased amount of unsafe and unfair labor conditions for people around the world.

Although my realization came gradually and naturally over time and through experiences, I had to start making some pretty immediate actions. One night, after researching old Nike lawsuits, I felt despondent at the disparity between the amount of money companies spend on advertising (billions) and the amount of money the average worker makes (pennies). Sobbing, I told my husband we weren’t going to buy any new clothes for a year: We were going off the system cold turkey. It was easy, at first. We didn’t have much spending money anyway, and our self-righteousness made us feel great. I would tell anyone within earshot about the evils of particular companies, about the labor conditions of a certain country, about the probability of child labor and sex traffic victims in the apparel industry.

Obviously, nobody wanted to hang out with me. While this didn’t surprise me, I was rather disconcerted that nobody wanted to argue with me. Deep down, everybody in America is walking around with a kind of collective guilt about where our clothes are made, if our coffee is direct trade, or if our beef is grass-fed, local and organic. Everyone, including myself, just assumes our cheap clothes are made in sweatshops. In order to get over this guilt, we make up for it by doing other positive things for the world or by justifying our own limited means.

In his book Where Am I Wearing? Kelsey Timmerman goes on a quest around the world to find where his favorite clothes are made: Honduras, Bangladesh, China and the U.S. Timmerman talked to factory workers and their families in order to understand what their perceptions of the working conditions were. What he found was not quite so cut and dried as I would have liked. Most of the workers were grateful for their jobs and the little money they made. The workers in Bangladesh pleaded with
Timmerman to tell his readers not to boycott their products—they depended on American consumption for their lives.

Timmerman ends up realizing “one man’s sweatshop is another man’s paradise.” The indignant evangelical inside of me thought this was a rather convenient conclusion to the issue of American consumer guilt. While economists and apparel corporations point to China as the leading example of what good can come of sweatshops—formerly the most infamous country for labor violations, China is now poised to have the largest middle class in the world—I can’t help but believe decades of miserable and unsafe working conditions should not be the standard to which we hold other countries.

While I don’t think it fiscally responsible to travel around the world and visit the factories where my clothes are made, I appreciate the gesture Timmerman made on behalf of us all: He faced his guilt headfirst and ultimately rose above it. No matter where you fall on the shopping continuum, be it the pro-consumer (buying clothes from Bangladesh helps the workers) or the conscious consumer (only buying clothes from  corporations with some semblance of social responsibility) or the low-impact consumer (buying as little new clothing as possible), it is important to understand the implications of each position.

I threw myself headfirst into a low-impact position with only a limited understanding of the global marketplace and with an enormous amount of guilt. Now, after more research on the subject, I am still on the low-impact path, and I have found peace and even a semblance of joy doing without. However, I no longer judge those who are not. I still find it fascinating that most Americans assume their clothes are made in sweatshop conditions, and I urge everyone to asses their lifestyles in the light of a globalized economy. Are the workers in Bangladesh dependent on you for your purchasing power? Or are we dependent on them to maintain our current standards of living? I would suggest it is a both/and situation, and that we as consumers can use our positions to ensure the globalized economy can benefit everyone—especially the producers.