The fine nations of India, China, Bangladesh and shockingly even the United States got me through my day today. Sure, I could have made do without their help — but I would have been naked.
Have you ever shopped with a parent, grandparent or some combination?
Of course you have. Do you recall the seemingly incessant nagging about this product being made in Mexico and that one making it all the way from Pakistan? Did it bother you?
It got to me in every instance, but not for the reason you might have in mind.
When I used to hear complaints about manufacturing moving overseas, I only heard “Globalization is bad because it cheapens products.” How could that be wrong?
I mused over this for some time. I never considered the spread of industry as inherently bad. Other nations need forms of employment, too, correct? Boy, a sucker really is born every minute, myself included.
Those “low” prices you and I pay for a pair of slacks, a favorite athletic shirt or loafers to lounge about in? There’s a reason why those prices exist, and it’s as simple as this: reduce labor costs and you reduce the price on the tag that customers see.
“Sale! Low price! Discount!” the advertisements shout.
Somewhere, thousands of miles away, a child cries as she sews on a button, being paid enough during several weeks to support her family for but one day.
“Oh, come on! You can’t possibly expect that every clothing business seeks to cause the suffering of underpaid, undernourished and overworked laborers!” You’re getting a bit indignant at this point.
The truth is that it’s nearly impossible to tell. Most companies are about as transparent as mud. In attempts to seem slightly less disingenuous, companies like Gap Inc. put together quite the squadrons of public relations slime in order to embellish their pretty sections on “Corporate Social Responsibility” (and they’re talented, no doubt).
But where is the evidence? Where can the average Joe — that’s me — get to the crux of the matter? All words and little spine make for a poor case.
This isn’t to say companies are all on the same playing field. Just based on loose evidence, I’d bet that Gap Inc. does a better job than many clothing companies out there — they at least take a stab at outward sincerity. Competitors like Levi Strauss and Co. make even fewer allusions to “responsibility.”
Are you ready for the punch line?
Our options are limited. Fairly traded clothing is about as perfect as perfect gets when it’s absolutely critical to buy something new (this goes for grocery items, too), but the price tags can be atrocious for the average consumer (especially college-aged people) and not many companies exist.
Take a look at the clothing company hessnatur (us.hessnatur.com) at some point.
Extensive documentation, partnership with a multitude of auditing organizations and strict commitments to harm-free production are all ingrained in the company. But you could easily blow several hundreds of dollars on one item — reflective of the true costs to make quality clothing by foreign hands.
This is a shame, really, ethical clothing quickly becomes a game for the rich. What can we commoners, the proletarians do?
The clothes you’re examining right now to see where they’re made? Hang on to them. There’s no sense in going out and buying new items that are domestically made or sweatshop-free — that seems all the more wasteful, assuming your current clothes aren’t falling apart.
What’s most important, and this is becoming a trend in this series, is to just become aware of what you’re buying and where your money’s going.
Use search tools to get a backdrop on a company. Look for recent lawsuits. See how they rate in third party assessments. You might try Green America’s Responsible Shopper Guide (greenamerica.org) as a start. Really dig in with other organizations like the International Labor Rights Forum (www.laborrights.org) and SweatFree Communities (sweatfree.org).
Your best bet when you need a few more rags in your closet? You guessed it: Buy hand-me-downs, gently used and otherwise previously owned articles.
Or just avoid buying at all. Swap clothes with a friend (of the same build). Join a group that swaps out clothing. Search local ad-spaces like Craigslist (craigslist.org) and Freecycle (freecycle.org) for free items.
If you’re looking for infant clothing, there are some wildly innovative clothing rental companies, such as Plum, that completely eliminate maddening cycles of spending, donating and spending again.
Joseph Barbaree is a graduate student studying journalism and a columnist for The Post. If you immediately checked the tag on your shirt, email him at email@example.com.