Tuesday, November 13, 2007

China Blue

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.


Sarah said...

My goodness! I know what you mean, friend. It's so difficult to be convicted about something and know that it's going to be really incredibly difficult for you to change things in your own life without encouraging people to make similar changes in their own.

And you're right about "fair trade" clothes - they are incredibly ethnic looking. And while I enjoy ethnic clothes to a certain extent, I'm really more into what might be deemed "trendy" and classic clothing, all of which of course is made in third world countries. What we really need is for our government, and perhaps the United Nations, to place restrictions on what First World countries can import...if we can no longer import sweat-shop made clothing, maybe that would force the sweat-shops to reform their labor codes and in the end make more money because we'd have to pay a fair price for the clothing (i.e. as much as we pay for clothing made in American factories, even though there is still a lot of wage disparagement here, too). It's all so complicated though, it's hard to figure out the best course of action. It really is a human rights issue, but it's really difficult to eradicate subtle human rights issues in other countries when we still have similar problems in some places in the U.S. The only thing I've managed to come up with right now as a consumer is to try to not increase the demand of sweat-shop made clothing...I shop very rarely, and if you shop at second-hand stores or wholesalers or only buying sale items that are marked down, you're not increasing demand by as significant an amount as if you pay $50 at Gap for a freaking t-shirt that someone was paid 50 cents for. Oh man. The Gap. I have huge issues with them. Like, for example, I was in there the other day just browsing around, and you know how they have that whole [Red] campaign? First of all, it's just a stupid campaign designed to make consumers feel like they're "helping" even though they're just being trendy. Anyway, I saw these bracelets that were part of that campaign on sale for $1.00. They were originally $4.00 with I think 50% of the profit made on them going towards ending poverty and I found myself thinking, WHY are they on SALE?! Is it so the people who didn't want to "donate" $2 by buying this STUPID bracelet (when they could have just give $4 and not supported Gap, who arguably contributes to a good bit of the world's poverty) can now pay Gap a dollar to look like they did? I doubt Gap gave much of the newly priced bracelet's profits to research, presumably because there was no longer a profit to be made on it. It just made me angry.

I don't know what there is to do. We should have a conference of people who have similar issues and we should all try and figure out what would be best.

Heather said...

i want to see this movie. its sounds so provoking.

Joyf said...

As you find out about it, teach me more! I like the idea, but I'm less certain of it being economically sound ..

I was at the Gap today, and tried on this super-cute long tweedish coat. It actually FIT me, which is pretty near a miracle for coats .. but it was rather expensive. I could have eaten the cost, but then I thought of the potential of sweatshops .. and I didn't buy it. I didn't want to pay that much.

Still, curses! When am I going to find a coat that good again?