I remember the first time I was aware of Bangladesh. I realized it was an actual place with it's own culture, with people who work and raise families and dream and hope. I was 15 and I read a Gap clothing tag.
Sweat shops had always been the fodder for media sensationalism, only noticed in Kathie Lee type scandals. They were distant and far away from me, the budding adolescent consumer who only wanted to wear what her friends were wearing. It was some attempt at self-esteem, but I never thought of the price beyond the dollar amount on the tag.
But I remember reading "Bangladesh." It sounded so exotic, still distant, but somehow real. I didn't know exactly where it was, somewhere in Asia I guessed. I found the family's red World Book letter B encyclopedia and looked up the entry on Bangladesh. It was dated in 1992. Even then, it was poor.
In that moment, I realized someone far away made my clothes and probably didn't make much money for it. Somehow, it seemed wrong and unjust and horrible, but being as self-absorbed as I was, I didn't bother to pursue those feelings of injustice further and put them to action.
It has remained in the back of my mind so that every time I've bought a new piece of clothing and seen the tag, the old feelings come back up. If I let them stir a bit, I'll actually think about the factory worker. I became aware of fair trade in college, but only in terms of coffee. Fairly traded apparel is almost unheard of, and when I can find it, it's always very ethnic looking. I would need dreadlocks and Birkenstocks to pull the outfit together.
I have learned more and more about fair trade in the past two years, especially after traveling to the developing world and working with people who were committed to international social justice. And, honestly, it is trendy right now to be concerned about other countries, to be into social justice, but I wonder if all the buzz will lead to real change. I have to ask: What's the next step? What do we do?
Awareness comes first. This weekend, I went to a fair trade craft festival, which included a screening of China Blue, winner of the Independent Lens Audience Award for 2007. It is a powerful and gut-wrenching real-life portrayal of teenage girls in China who work in a denim factory. They lived in a crowded factory dorm, hardly ever went outside, worked long hours with no overtime pay and lost pay for "misconduct" such as laughing or sleeping on their breaks.
The girls in the movie were not much older than I was when I first looked at the Gap tag. They are babies, too young to be nearly enslaved. All so that we can buy cheap jeans and corporations can make bigger profits. Yet, they have a certain dignity that comes through in the film - they want to work and send money to their families. They take pride in what they do.
I believe fair trade is the answer. There's a lot economic theory I need to read and understand first, but economics, much like science, must be viewed through an ethical lens at some point. If we have compassion, if we can empathize, if we are essentially human, we must address our consumption and ask if the human price is too high.
From there, I believe we can change apparel industry. More on this later.