Where are you wearing?

     When was the last time you looked at the care tag of your favorite clothing item and thought about the life of the person who made it?
     At the Green Festival in Los Angeles, I was able to listen to a provocative presentation by Kelsey Timmerman, author of the book "Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes".
Cover of "Where Am I Wearing?" Buy the book here.

     Inspired by a sense of adventure and the origin of his favorite T-shirt, he trekked to Honduras in search of the clothing manufacturer.  After being turned away at the factory doors by security, he waited nearby until the day was over.  He was finally able to speak with a friendly factory worker.  They chit-chatted about sports and hacky-sack but Kelsey didn't ask the questions that brought him to Hondoras in the first place. Part of him was afraid to know the answers.
     After that incident, he was determined to find the origins of his other favorite items.  Next up - a pair of boxers from Bangladesh.  He wanted to meet with representatives from the clothing manufacturer but they did not want to speak to a journalist.  They only took interest in speaking to a prospective buyer.  As Kelsey continued his quest to find out where he was wearing, he met factory workers making $50 or even $24 a month.  The cost of living in other countries may be lower, but often those wages are not still not enough.  Families must be separated or go hungry despite the long hours worked.

Kelsey Timmerman on the left, Chris Yura of SustainU on the right.
     Recently, an apparel factory in Bangladesh caught fire, killing more than 100 workers and injuring more than 200.  Days later another clothing factory also caught on fire and people were injured jumping out of windows to avoid burning - there were no fire escapes.  Poor building design is only one of the problems these workers face.  (See Kelsey's thoughts here: http://whereamiwearing.com/2012/11/bangladesh_factory_fire/)
     It seems that many garment workers in other countries are treated poorly and are paid low wages.  A job to earn money to try to support a family is good, right?  But do these jobs provide real opportunity?
     Tally up the approximate cost of what you are wearing or carrying (smartphone, tablet, handbag, wallet, etc).  How long would it take someone making $24 or $50 a month to afford that one outfit?  Life in some other countries is different than in the United States and I am thankful for the opportunities I have as an American.  But that does not mean workers who make the clothes I wear every day should have to live in poor conditions for me to get lower prices.  It also should not mean employees for the retailer that contracted the factory should be treated poorly, either.
     There must be a balance between the price of an item, the look and quality of that item, and the treatment of those who made it possible for me to buy that item.  This balance is definitely difficult to find - many retailers are not exactly transparent about their supply chain.
     I like to shop at Target - they have many locations, carry a variety of items, and have good prices on my favorite personal care items, snacks, nail polishes, and other items.  I've enjoyed free museum days they sponsored in Chicago and am glad they remind people to recycle every time I see the bins in my store.  I am interested in their collaboration with Neiman Marcus and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (who have initiated a major crackdown on counterfeiting!).  Target has goals to increase sustainability practices and better the health of their employees.  But I can't seem to find information on where and who makes the items that are sold under the Target labels (Mossimo, Merona, etc).
     This is unsettling after hearing about factory fires, forced labor, and impoverished workers in apparel factories abroad.
     As consumers, we can be part of the solution.  Kelsey suggests starting by wearing one story a day.  Like with a diet, it's difficult to restrict yourself to eating or avoiding a large number of food items right away but a slower, more conscious lifestyle change is easier to maintain.  It would not make sense to throw out everything in your home and start over.  Instead, check the tags on your favorite shirt or when you go out shopping.  Observe how many items are imported and from where they are imported.  See if you can find more information.  Check the types of materials that are used - natural or synthetic.  Find out more about the differences.  When you need to buy a gift or replace an item you've worn out - choose to buy from a company that is transparent about it's sourcing and goals.
     We use clothes, care, and food items every day.  Don't you want to know more about you are putting on and in your body?
    Kelsey spent a lot of time to find out and share more about where he was wearing.  He also spent the time in finding out more about the food that fuels him - his next book entitled "Where Am I Eating?: A Journey Through The Global Food Economy" is coming soon.  His website and blog have more information on his books and the social injustices of the clothing industry.