My seamstress died last week. She was crushed when an eight-story building fell on her. It's tragic. I'm outraged.
Somehow, the clothes on my back—the clothes I bought and will buy—are intertwined in what could be Bangladesh's worst industrial disaster to date, killing more than 800 (the AP had reported the death toll could soar to as many as 1,400). In fact, when the garment factory she worked in collapsed, she may have been making a blouse for me or my daughter. I don't know her name, and I didn't hire her directly, but that doesn't make her any less human. And it doesn't make me any less involved in this web of supply and demand. They were making clothing for companies that you and I know—companies where I have bought clothing for myself and for my children.
Without placing undue blame on the consumerism of Americans and the rest of the Global North, and without making this all about us, we still need to stop and consider how most of us have supported an industry that lets people work in these dangerous conditions. Ultimately, our spending reveals we tend to care more about the price of our clothing than the conditions under which they are made.
Even after the tragedy, the news that such a factory would be making our clothes didn't come as a complete surprise. We knew it already. Most of us have heard of sweatshops, where labor laws are violated, wages are unfair, or conditions are hazardous. For decades, clothing manufacturers that supply the U.S. fashion industry have been accused of relying on unethical working conditions for the cheap products we buy. We feel aghast when we hear such reports… at least initially. We might even share a news article with friends. And then, with our most powerful voice—our wallets—the majority of us simply pretend as if we had never heard the news.
What keeps us from caring enough to ask how our clothing is made? In part, it's too far away. I will never meet my seamstress. When we try on a pair of jeans folded on a shelf at the mall, we can't see the woman who stitched the zipper. The "Made in Vietnam" tag doesn't tell us whether our clothing came from a machine or from a living, breathing person with a family at home. Because we can't see the workers, it becomes easier for us not to feel guilty for the criteria we use as we buy.
Shopping to find a good deal or a cheap price isn't inherently evil, and it can be a positive thing. The "wife of noble character" described in Proverbs 31 was thrifty. "She sees that her trading is profitable" (Prov. 31:8). Saving money can mean a better life for our families and more funds left for us to generously give to others. But if we could meet the person who made the pair of jeans we try on in the dressing room, we would likely reevaluate our decision to consider price alone.
Shoppers may also keep in mind the identity and contentment issues we attach to fashion. We live in a culture whose fashion industry very intentionally shapes new norms every season. Ron Sider points out this strategy in his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. He calls it "planned obsolescence," the idea that companies choose to make products that render previous purchases useless. Sider writes, "Large companies developed advertising techniques to persuade us that joy and happiness come through fancy new clothes, the latest car models, and ever-more sophisticated gadgets." Ouch. This is why we feel pressured to buy the right shade of denim, the right cut of a blouse, the right height of boots. Meanwhile, women who died in the Bangladesh factory were likely wearing the same Shalwar Kameez fashions that their mothers and grandmothers wore. They would wear their clothing until it wore out, and even then they might save and reuse the thread that had held their clothes together. I can't remember the last time I wore out a piece of clothing.
Shopping for price isn't always wrong. Neither is shopping for fashion. But as I hold this mirror up to my purchasing choices, I'm seeing roots of selfishness, greed and a misplaced search for significance. And that's where my seamstress and I finally meet eyes. My sin against her is that I have loved myself too much, and her too little.
I don't pretend to have this issue figured out, and I'm definitely not yet a model consumer. But the incident that killed my seamstress and more than 300 others has me seeking out ways to use my buying power to cause change.
Support clothing companies that treat their workers well.
Many shoppers don't seek out and purchase ethically made products because they don't know how to identify them. It's usually not easy, but as more information becomes available online, more companies will become forced to be transparent about their own supply chain policies, experts say.
One resource to turn to is The Better World Shopper. This organization gives purchasing advice on its website, in a small book, and through its smartphone app. Another great place to learn about fair trade in general is from Trade as One, a Christian organization that has been advocating consumer justice for years.
It's better to do some research instead of deciding to stop purchasing clothing from a particular country. To do so could shut down key industries and leave vulnerable people in even worse conditions. If you are concerned about a specific company, write or call to let them know. Consumer objections to Nike's manufacturing practices caused the company to produce their first corporate responsibility report in 2001.
Buy less new clothing.
Once again, we cannot deny that our seemingly insatiable needs for more are part of the problem. Are we cultivating spirits of contentment, by God's grace, and placing our identity in who we are in Christ and not what we are wearing?
The overstuffed drawers and closets in my house just might be a sign that my family doesn't need every piece of clothing that we own. We certainly don't need more. Buying less also allows us to invest more on fewer items produced under just and ethical conditions, rather than paying for piece after piece of cheap clothing. Plus, there are always thrift shops. Buying secondhand is resourceful and doesn't demand new supplies or labor be used for our clothing.
Give to programs that offer workers another option.
Factory workers in Bangladesh went to work in a building that they saw was unstable because they feared losing their jobs—jobs where they were making about $1 a day. A number of organizations in countries like Bangladesh work to create other economic options through programs that foster entrepreneurship among women and men. We can also redirect a portion of our clothing budget to these causes to help them expand.
Wendy McMahan is the director of U.S. church engagement for Food for the Hungry, an international relief and development organization with operations in more than 20 countries worldwide, including Bangladesh. She and her husband are proud parents to two daughters and have been foster parents to children of all ages. Wendy hosts the Poverty Unlocked podcast and blogs regularly for the Food for the Hungry blog.