The main media buzz has — all too soon — drifted away from the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, in which over a thousand garment workers lost their lives, and another 2,500 were injured. I heard the news report when it happened, and even engaged in a few rather brief discussions, over the next few days, about what might be done in response to such a tragedy.
But — the wide variety of new, fresh bad news offers one a constant excuse to move on, and I confess that I hadn’t engaged spiritually with the Rana Plaza story. Truth is, I was in denial. You see, I tend to have a very simple day-to-day wardrobe. I have two pairs of jeans that I alternate, getting one out of the wash when the first gets dirty — and I tend to wear them constantly until they’re worn out; my personal buying habits do little to heap the garment industry with profit. Anyway, I had these two pairs of comfortable pants, but I had not yet summoned the courage to check their places of manufacture.
After the Rana Plaza Collapse, an agreement was pulled together among a number of clothing manufacturers to require a certain level of basic worker-safety protections in plants where their brands were made. However, US companies such as Walmart and Gap refused to sign on, protesting that the agreement was to be self-enforced, and therefore not meaningfully binding (true) and that they would prefer to implement their own in-house standards (dubious). And… well… OK! I bought these pants at Walmart. Look, I have growing children; I seek bargains for clothes we’re just going to give away in six months anyway. The last time we were buying school clothes, it was time for me to replace my basic uniform, and I satisfied my desires with the least exertion.
This put me, however, in a rather absurd situation. Each morning, as I put on the pants, I was reminded of the smashed, exploited Bangladeshi workers, and yet I made the decision to buckle up, go about my business — vowing to check the label… later. This went on about as long as it possibly could have. One day I simply had to suck it up, and look. “Made in Bangladesh.” Great. The other pair was in the dryer. (Yes! I use a dryer, OK! But I recycle! My car gets 37 mpg… Eh, what’s the use; my soul will burn in Eco-Hell.)
The second pair was made in Lesotho. I heaved a perfectly irrational sigh of relief over this. Are conditions for garment workers any better in Lesotho? I don’t know! (Can the reader find Lesotho on a map?)
Clothing is such a basic human product, and for most of human history, providing it demanded a crazy amount of labor. So, it was one of the very first industries to be extensively mechanized. Labor-saving inventions were very important to the clothing industry; they made a few people huge fortunes, and products made with them eased the lives of millions. To get a sense of how big a deal this was, one can look at the amazing engineering that went into the use of water power in early factories. To the modern person, who isn’t used to making much of anything, the ingenuity brought to bear in an early water-powered textile mill is nearly magical. But, those machines were dangerous.
Accidents were common, and they often involved children. I remember a tour guide at the Slater Mill in Rhode Island telling us that five-to six year-olds were told to scurry under the heavy boom of a weaving loom to free some obstruction — because they were small enough to fit — Quick! before the machine cycles through again! Often families were a package deal at such mills; if one kid was killed, the whole family might get fired. By 1840, half of Slater Mill’s workforce was under the age of 12.
It’s also worth remembering that the big profits to be had in the new clothing industry created the market which led the United States to codify in law its “peculiar institution” of slavery. Cotton was the US’s biggest export for quite a while. The plantation South wanted a free trade policy, to keep the British from placing retaliatory tariffs on its cotton; the industrial North wanted protection for its developing textile industry; this “sectional” controversy contributed to the South’s secession movement, and the Civil War.
Should any of this make me feel better about the pants I’m wearing? Well, not really. I guess I do have to option to donate the tainted trousers to Goodwill, and replace them with a pair of 501® Original Fit Made in the USA Jeans, proudly crafted at the White Oak Denim Mill in Greensboro, North Carolina; they’re currently on sale at the Levis website for $129.90 (marked down from $198).
Meanwhile, here in the USA we’ve moved beyond all this tacky, inconvenient manufacturing work. Across the road from the historic Slater Mill which I toured now stands the Slater Mill Apartments and Condos, where you can “take a step back in time and live in turn-of-the-century surroundings that have been updated into incredibly chic apartments and amenities.” Why bother making stuff when you can keep your hands clean, and deal in real estate?
So I guess I’ll keep the Bangladeshi and Lesothan pants for now. I will, however, continue to work for an economic order in which wages rise for every worker, because natural opportunities are not hoarded for the profit of a few, but rather released to be utilized by the producers. That way, we’ll all be able to afford clothes that cover our nakedness without breaking our hearts.