Tuesday, June 15, 2010

You Are What You Wear

With thanks to Virginia and Brian of Amnesty International in Charlottesville, VA, I share the text of my speech prepared for their “You Are What You Wear” Ethical Fashion Show. It was held June 4, 2010:

As was mentioned in the introduction, I first encountered Fair Trade through coffee, but I actually have a nostalgic connection to the apparel industry because relatives in my grandparents’ generation were factory workers in the Northeast. I have at least one great aunt who was a member of the union now known as UNITE, for Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. Unions in the United States were becoming an important social force in the early 20th century. You might remember from your high school history lessons the story of the Triangle Waist Company fire of 1911. That was the site of a tragedy where garment worker were trapped in a burning building by blocked exits. The incident confirmed unsafe working conditions that organizers had been protesting, and the tragedy was a galvanizing moment for the US union movement. The movement went on to organize workers and press for laws that are now core to our understanding of what a workplace should be like: payment of at least a minimum wage, protection against exploitative child labor, and guarantee of decent working conditions. When these types of rights are abused in a factory, we call the situation a “sweatshop” and over the years as our economy has globalized, sweatshops have also spread.

I would like to point out, though, sweatshops haven’t disappeared from the United States by any means. In the agricultural sector in particular we talk about “sweatshops in the fields,” and I commend to you the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida to learn more about the plight of vegetable pickers. In the garment sector, immigrant populations are often victimized as demonstrated by the documentary “Made in LA.” But the reality of our economy today is that most clothing is manufactured in other countries. In my book I quote the International Labor Rights Forum:

In the new global economy, corporations from developed countries are increasingly moving their production to developing countries, where they can take advantage of cheap labor under sweatshop conditions. Workers must toil extremely long hours in labor intensive jobs with low pay and often unsanitary and unsafe conditions. In many countries, there is little or no labor law enforcement, and many workers are prevented from joining organizations to advance their interests. Even more alarming, an estimated 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen are working around the world.

Thanks to a speaking tour by ILRF I recently had the opportunity to meet with Kalpona Akter, a former child factory worker, who as an adult is confronting modern day labor challenges in her country of Bangladesh, where the average person has an annual income of $1,300 or less than $4 day. On that a person is supposed to be able to live a basic, decent life. Three meals a day, roof over your head, water to drink, clothes to wear. These days about 4 billion people live on less than $4 a day. Approximately one billion live on less than $1 a day. I know sometimes the statistics can be abstract so I think of it in terms of the fact that many of those same people lack access to drinkable water. Hard to fathom, isn’t it? For about a buck you can get a bottle of water here in the States. One billion human beings can’t access a clean tap or afford a bottle of water, and given the problems with the bottled water industry probably shouldn’t …but I digress.

This poverty I’m talking about is usually in rural areas, where people have few options to earn a living. Sometimes they turn to factories in urban areas for jobs. But what do those jobs offer? Kalpona shared that garment factories of Bangladesh typically offer only poverty wages and workers are threatened with firing when they try to organize to fight for better conditions. Sometimes you hear the notion that poor people like Kalpona shouldn’t be deprived the opportunity to work in a factory, no matter what the conditions, because at least it is some form of employment. When we consider how vast the problems of poverty are—at least a job’s a job, right? But I don’t think we as consumers should settle for the fact that our clothes are made by people laboring without just compensation and in sometimes unsafe working conditions. I know we can do better than that. And we are wasting time. Just last February a factory fire in Bangladesh took the lives of 21 employees and injured another 50. Workers’ efforts to escape were useless as factory doors had been locked. Depressingly reminiscent of the situation in 1911.

But we are making progress. In the mid 1990s, thanks to media coverage revealing sweatshop conditions in factories used by popular brands, consumers, especially students, began to organize against sweatshops. United Students Against Sweatshops formed and soon created a companion organization called the Workers Rights Consortium. In the Clinton era an organization bringing together companies who were voluntarily willing to adopt specific codes of conduct was organized, called the Fair Labor Association. However, FLA has gotten some criticism because it is an industry led effort, reflecting the priorities of the corporations, not the workers. W.R.C. devised a stronger response to worrisome labor conditions by monitoring facilities in reaction to specific worker complaints. The University of Virginia is an affiliate of WRC and through that affiliation receives assessments of conditions in factories that produce collegiate apparel, with specific reference to whether factories are in compliance with university’s codes of conduct.

Alongside those institutional efforts, consumer education groups such as Green America—once known as Coop America-- rank company practices. It also screens companies for membership in its network. This verification of business practices is similar to the work of the Fair Trade Federation, which screens organizations to verify that all of the company’s practices reflect the principles of Fair Trade:

1) Creating Opportunities for Economically and Socially Marginalized Producers

2) Developing Transparent and Accountable Relationships

3) Building Capacity

4) Promoting Fair Trade

5) Paying Promptly and Fairly

6) Supporting Safe and Empowering Working Conditions

7) Ensuring the Rights of Children

8) Cultivating Environmental Stewardship

9) Respecting Cultural Identity

Now, I’m referencing a lot of U.S. based resources—and as I tell the story in my book the Fair Trade movement started in the United States--,but it is important to note that in this globalized world there are many efforts at economic justice. In the UK the Ethical Trading Initiative brings together companies, unions and nongovernmental organizations to uphold credible codes of conduct, such as those based on the International Labor Organization standards. Amnesty International itself “ is campaigning for global standards on business and human rights and stronger legal frameworks at both national and international level to hold companies to account for their human rights impact. Amnesty International asks “companies to produce explicit human rights policies and ensure that they are integrated, monitored and audited across their operations and beyond borders. “

This auditing of practices is what Fair Trade is increasingly recognized for by consumers, particularly when it comes to products such as coffee. While Fair Trade actually started in the handcraft sector, helping disadvantaged women gain markets for their sewing, the popularity of coffee in our culture has helped gain recognition of Fair Trade and its principles. According to TransFair USA demand for Fair Trade certified coffee grew 25% between 2008 and 2009. Demand grew because more and more consumers want their products to be traded fairly.

The official global definition of Fair Trade is that it is a “long-term partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect that seeks to restore greater equity in international trade." The values of “dialogue, transparency and respect” jump out at you, but what is also key is the partnership between producer and consumer. "Buying Fair Trade is like giving a glass of clean water to a thirsty person," a cocoa farmer in Ghana, told me once. At that time her cooperative -- Kuapa Kokoo -- had sold enough cocoa on Fair Trade terms to dig 96 water wells, open three schools, and provide her village's first "places of convenience," what you and I call "bathrooms." Her community’s success was the result of hard work, good crops, NGO and government support, but also because consumers were willing to buy the chocolate bars that came from Kuapa Kokoo’s fields. Fair Trade producers are looking for buyers, and you can be their partner. That’s in fact what I invite you to do, even though the price of a small bar is about 50 cents more than a brand name bar.

I just want to pause and acknowledge what I just said during a recession: I want you to spend more money. This is ironic for me because I consider “ethical” or “responsible” or “conscious” consumption to be about reducing materialism not accelerating it, especially since the world is still recovering from our financial system being on the verge of ruin. Especially since our culture in particular promotes irresponsible debt and other unsustainable practices that have negatively impacted my fellow Americans. So before we go any further on sweatshops or Fair Trade fashion I want to explain where I am coming from, because I bet some of you have the same conflicts or contradictions in your life.

In my book I suggest that to be Fair Trader we have to ask ourselves some tough questions, such as:

  • Am I promoting materialism?
  • Is it responsible to encourage affluent societies that consume at an unsustainable pace to keep consuming, just in a more politically correct way?
  • Is it possible to translate Fair Trade shopping into values-based consumption?

Here’s how I came to answer those queries for myself. About a decade ago I was traveling around Central America and Mexico. I had gone through some tough times and was getting some space from the US trying to figure out what I believed in, what mattered. I was “taking a year off.” But in a complication I hadn’t expect, in these very poor countries I kept coming into contact with people who wanted to be part of popular American culture. Everywhere I looked: American magazines, fast food, Tommy Hilfiger, and television.

I have been in some remote places in the world, but wherever there is electricity, there is a television. Consider the implication of this. All over the world, way up high on mountain tops and down in flat rice fields, people are seeing not only our so called “reality shows”, but they are also watching our commercials. They are learning our materialism, our over-consumption. And, remember 4 billion people live on less than $4 a day, so no wonder many of them want our lifestyle. But the culture they view on television is helping create their desire too. Generally speaking, the advertising industry is trying to shape behaviors so that people don’t think carefully or intentionally.

Here’s one story that says a lot to me. At just about the time that televisions were showing up in American households, that is the early 1950s, B. Earl Puckett, chairman of the department store chain that now runs Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s said that in order to keep sales high, "it is our job to make women unhappy with what they have." (Allied Makes a Buy, Time Magazine, Posted Monday, Apr. 23, 1951) He was aiming to do that through television commercials that would create dissatisfaction with the lives women were living. And Puckett only had 3 or 4 TV channels. Which might still be what the majority of the world sees. Here in the US, now that television is almost passé, what with the advent of You Tube and smart phones, state of the art technology is being used to sell stuff.

When I was in Latin America this push to swing from extreme poverty to extreme consumption worried me and it still worries me now. I am worried, not only that the planet can’t sustain our kind of consumption spreading, but because millions of people are buying into a system that disconnects them from their individuality, separates them from their mother earth and seeks to direct their energy and their skills into purchasing power. Certainly we need to meet basic needs. But a generation after Mr. Puckett, marketers across the globe are finding the fastest, edgiest technology to tell us that once we survive we aren’t good enough, sexy enough, popular enough, and we need to buy things to fix what’s wrong. This is disconcerting to me because I believe we should have dissatisfaction, but not over the same indicators as the profiteers like Puckett.

For me, what I have come to believe is that clearly we have needs, and even wants, to be met. Trade is a fact of life, and can be a positive one at that. As interdependent creatures we can’t meet all our needs and we are forced to rely on others, to build partnerships. We have to trade. What is important is what the terms of the trade are, what the motivations for the trade are. So as a a counterpoint to Mr. Pucket, our dissatisfactions can focus on why so many workers like Kalpona face indecent conditions and grim prospects for real opportunity. We don’t have to over-consume, but in this country—even during a recession—we have a special opportunity and obligation to change the way we consume. My hope is that by supporting ethical businesses and by adopting Fair Trade principles we can change the way the world works. Maybe we can find that, when it comes down to it, what we buy does fix what’s wrong.

So, yes, I am all about creating conscious demand for products. The growing popularity of Fair Trade products—be it tea, or sugar, or even products that can’t be certified, like clothing and jewelry—is a good thing because it translates into improved living conditions for farmers and artisans. It also gives conscious consumers more and more ways to shop our values. But the growth and diversity of the movement has led to some challenges that we need to be aware of as truly conscious consumers. For example, Sweatshop-free items are sometimes called Fair Trade because of the wage and working condition concerns. However, use of the term is not entirely accurate, and there has actually been some disconnect at best, and friction at worst, between the sweat-free and Fair Trade movements.

On the one hand, unions initially were concerned that Fair Trade advocates were promoting or aiding the shift of manufacturing to overseas or offshore locations because the Fair Trade movement is primarily concerned with international trade. More recently there have been concerns about the ability of workers to organize in the context of Fair Trade. The Fair Trade model relies, for the most part, on small-scale producers working through a cooperative model. Pro-labor advocates question what such a model has to offer landless farmworkers seeking unionized employment on a banana plantation, for example. In recent years the Fair Trade certification system has expanded its reach to include manufactured products such as soccer balls and to include plantation contexts for products such as bananas. However the value chain—what it takes for a piece of clothing to be produced from a cotton field all the way to your closet--is far more complicated than that for a farm product, such as coffee. Fair Trade criteria may not be sufficient or appropriate in terms of guaranteeing worker rights and demanding corporate responsibility.

These points of divergence do not necessarily mean there is a conflict between fair traders and labor organizers but it does sometimes blur points of convergence. Together fair traders and sweat-free activists work against oversimplifying both the complex Fair Trade model and the myriad of situations that are faced by workers around the world fighting for economic justice. That’s one of the reasons why I am glad to be here tonight. It gives us a chance to consider the complexities. Let’s take a look at the myriad of situations through the example of my outfit. This will be a mini preview of tonight’s show but I’m sure not nearly as stylish.

· My earrings were handmade in Kenya. My scarf is from India. I know they are Fair Trade because I purchased them through Ten Thousand Villages, a member of the Fair Trade Federation.

· My blouse was purchased at my local thrift store. I know I am reducing consumption by reusing an item instead of expecting it to be created brand new for me in unknown conditions.

· My slacks were a Christmas gift manufactured by Eddie Bauer, which frankly hasn’t fared so well with Green America’s “Responsible Shopper” guide.

· I don’t know about my shoes and socks, to be honest, but I am wearing American Apparel underwear…you’ll have to trust me on that one.

Now the mention of American Apparel brings up another challenge. I notice they are on tonight’s list of recommended on-line sources--along with local vintage clothing stores--for responsible clothing. Fair Indigo is another company listed that I am familiar with. I’m a customer of both. I need underwear, and I also need business casual clothes like those offered by Fair Indigo. But how do I really know that they are responsibly manufactured? Neither companies are members of the Fair Trade Federation. Neither has product lines which display a certification label.

When it comes to our behaving as shoppers, I think sometimes we have to channel our inner 13 year old, put a hand on the hip and ask, “Says Who?” I’ve heard some pretty troubling things about the way the CEO of American Apparel treats his professional workers, although no one seems to dispute how he treats assembly line workers. I have had the good fortune to work a bit with the founders of Fair Indigo, and they seem like nice people. But, really, how do we know what their business practices are? We can’t personally meet every CEO can we? Do we just accept advertising and websites that profess great work? I think all of us who have ever filled up our gas tank at a BP station because of all if its green marketing and earth friendly logo might pause on that account. Yes there are groups that verify overall business practices. ILRF has a “shop with conscience” guide and there are the Green Pages of Green America. But rarely do the brands recommended--such as another personal favorite of mine, Maggie’s Organics--appear in retail stores and let’s face it, when it comes to clothing it sometimes really is important to try an item on. You and the people of Charlottesville are fortunate, because you have so many local businesses that feature previously owned attire. Tonight’s message is to support workers in the global economy by supporting business owners in the local economy. In another paradox, by decreasing the demand for “new products” you are increasing demand for ethical practices. And when you are in need of something new or a gift, you do have Fair and sweat-free options. The postcard lists being distributed by Amnesty offer some options.

My only request today is that you don’t just stop at the shopping. Get to know the companies and dig a bit into their practices if you have any doubts or concerns. It is the age of social media, so use technology (but also old-fashioned letters to ask questions and demand accountability). Put your hand on your hip, with a polite, “Says Who?” Don’t stop with your own closet though. The Sweatfree Communities movement could really use communities like Charlottesville. Initiated in Bangor, Maine, SFC.’s are efforts by citizens to insure that their tax dollars are not used to procure clothing manufactured in sweatshops for use by public servants, such as police officers and firefighters. Nine states, 40 cities, 15 counties, and 118 school districts, and one nationwide religious denomination—I believe it is the Presbyterians--have adopted “sweatfree” policies. So start in your home by supporting local businesses, then bring to bear the global resources that you have through Amnesty International and others to make sure your local and state governments fulfill their obligations to protect human rights.

Tonight, here in the USA, we have the right to assemble, the freedom to express our interests and our good fashion sense. But we also have a responsibility, to those people like Kalpona from Bangladesh. We need to stop living lives that are possible because of the exploitation of others. If we are what we wear, than let’s be sweat free and sustainable. Thank you.


  1. Jackie,

    Thanks for posting this. It is a great piece that brings together a need to curb consumption with conscious consumerism.


  2. Anonymous12:34 PM

    Wow! That was quite a speech. Well done. Four quick comments:

    B-Corporation is another company (not product) certifier with a very extensive, stringent set of standards. Worth your time to check out.

    Completely agree about Americans bringing our consumption in check. We are just *so* far out of balance with the rest of the world.

    American Apparel may receive kudos from some folks for their business practices, but I refuse to buy from them both personally and professionally because their print catalogs can only be described as soft porn.

    When AA first launched several years ago, I was working for another Fair Trade Certified company. I immediately switched all our wholesale apparel purchasing to them as our sole source. And then their first print catalog came out. Uh oh.

    Sorry, but I don't want to associate with any company - no matter how clean their supply chain - that chooses to market their products in such a manner. We immediately switched away from them and have stayed away.

    But to end on a positive note, Maggie's Organics is also a favorite of mine; I'm wearing one of their long-sleeve tees right now. Highly recommended. Great products and customer service.

    - Scott