Change the World, Not Your Clothes

Do you have a favorite pair of jeans, ones you wear over and over, and which you will groan over when they develop that inevitable and irreparable hole? Or maybe for you it’s a t-shirt that has reached the status of an old and dear friend? My dearest and best was a black tank-top second-handed to me at age 14 by an MK friend cleaning out her closet. I re-wore that shirt until the screen-printed parrots were flaky blobs of color, the word “Ecuador” was no longer visible, and its holes were like grains of sand on the sea-shore. I reluctantly retired it as a junior in college, when even my more edgy friends began to comment on its ragged condition. R.I.P. favorite shirt.

I share that story because it’s a perfect (albeit extreme) example of an attitude towards clothing that could make a profound impact on our world. That attitude towards clothing is summed up in a single word: Value.

I picked up a book in my local library last week with some disturbing statistics about clothing. Consumption (buying new) has gone way up (increasing by 73% from ‘96 to 2001 alone), and clothing prices have dropped dramatically (10% in the last decade). Clothing has become significantly less valuable and more “disposable” (Goodwill reported that “rates of consumer discard rose by 10 percent a year throughout the 1990’s”). Dropping prices mean Americans are spending much less on clothing than they used to, even though they are buying much more. “In 1920 the average household spent 17% of its total expenditures on clothing. In 2001, the figure was a mere 4.4 percent, despite the fact that consumers were buying far more garments.” Why do I find these statistics disturbing? Because the devaluing of clothing has meant increased poverty for all the bottom-rung workers who make those clothes. We have more; many of them have less. Here’s an excerpt from my book that paints a picture of what’s going on and why:

“Wages throughout [Asia] plummeted after the [Asian financial] crisis. Indonesian garment wages fell to 15 cents an hour. In Bangladesh, which has become the fourth largest apparel-exporter to the United States, wages fell to a range of 7-18 cents an hour. Wal-Mart, which controls 15 %  of the U.S. apparel market and is the world’s largest clothing retailer, continuously squeezes labor costs in Chinese factories—they can be as low as 13 cents per hour, and the norm is below 25 cents…Workers have had little success resisting these conditions, because the transnational companies go elsewhere if workers make demands and because factory owners enjoy political protections from their governments.” (State of the World 2004: The Consumer Society)

In their attempts to meet the demand of our “get more, spend less” consumer society, major corporations have so lowered their base-level labor costs that many factories in traditionally cheap-labor countries can’t even compete anymore and are closing down (e.g. Mexico). The economic situation in Asia following their financial crisis of 1997 has made many people so desperate that sweat-shop work is their “dream-job.” Their desperation has become our invitation to capitalize. And the way things are at the moment, a fair-wage factory can’t compete in the global market.

There is no question that this situation is a behemoth of a whale to turn around. But it’s not impossible. Many people are saying the world can’t support our current rate of consumption much longer anyway. If you want to change the world, the best place to start is with yourself. I think the first step is simply changing our basic attitude towards clothing—calling it valuable, treating our garments as treasured friends, not disposable surplus. If we can buy out of the image“buy more” philosophy of our times, we will have won a major victory in ourselves. And restoring a proper respect and value for clothing will set the stage for bigger changes in the global garment industry.

So dig out that old favorite shirt and wear it proudly. You are embracing the winds of change.

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