The latest book in my series of seemingly ethically-bent literature.
This book tackles the issue of foreign labor, particularly for clothing and shoes. It’s not too heavy on facts, which is to say it’s not boring and at no points feels like some sort of obligatory syllabus read. Actually, since it is written in a friendly manner, by a person sharing his direct experiences, this book moves along rather fast.
Timmerman jumps from country to country, visiting laborers of various factories, aiming initially to find people that make the very items of clothing that he owns, from his underwear in Bangladesh to his shorts in the USA. For the most part he is not able to catch the exact people in the exact factories where his things were made, because of the quick turnover of pieces being made and because factories either moved or closed. However is he able to garner a lot of insight into the lives of people that make clothes like his, and even into the factories where things like his were made.
Over and over Timmerman encounters what we would consider to be underage workers. His conclusion is that in many cases it is okay that such young people are working in factories. In fact, more often than not it is necessary, because the families of these young people are depending on them to go to the cities and work, and send a sizable portion of their pay back to them in the rural areas. All of the young people seemed content to fulfill their roles of breadwinners, and seemed to value the weight of their familial responsibility.
While the lives of these young workers are not easy, considering the alternatives available to them, they are not totally discontent.
The author asks a group of teenage female laborers in Cambodia: “What would you tell someone in the USA who won’t buy the jeans that you make because they don’t think you are paid enough or treated fairly?”
“If they pay $45 for jeans,” Ai says, “it helps us. If people don’t buy, I’m unhappy because I wouldn’t have a job.”
A major factor in the importance of the young and healthy family members working is that the governments of places such as Cambodia do not offer any sort of assistance to the elderly or disabled. One theory suggested for the abolishment of rampant poverty in the countryside is rural development. While that sounds awfully promising I personally cannot help but cringe, imagining that such development would probably entail a lot of unnecessary plowing of trees and air pollution, to name a few things.
Timmerman plays Frisbee with children in a landfill in Cambodia (who he found rifling through trash that they could exchange for money at a recycling center), takes several groups bowling, and even takes a group to an amusement park, “Fantasy Kingdom,” in Bangladesh. He is generous (though bear in mind that the dollar goes a long way in these places), and interested in giving something back to these people who are sharing their lives with him.
During his journey, Timmerman’s fiance, Annie, was busy planning their wedding back in Ohio. At the end of the book we are welcomed into the wedding, where even during his vows, Timmerman cannot escape thoughts stemming from his recent journey:
“… for richer, for poorer…”
“That’s kind of relative isn’t it? Richer than whom?” I thought. According to the United Nations Human Development Report, 40 percent of he world’s population lives on less than $2 per day. If our homeowners’ association allowed it, Annie and I could open a lemonade stand and support a life richer than most of the people who make our clothes.
Compared to the rest of the world, Annie and I will never know “poorer”.”
What I love most about this book is that it is concluded with further encouragement for the reader to be conscious of their purchasing.
Timmerman suggests a few different styles of consumer, and offers suggestions as to where people can shop for certain classifications of things – such as American made, or organic. He isn’t preachy, and even admits, “I was an apathetic consumer. I knew the people who made my clothes lived difficult lives, but I just didn’t give the matter my time or attention.”
But after his journey?
He calls himself an engaged consumer and claims that he researches all of his purchases online, trawling through company websites, looking for information on how factories are monitored, if they are members of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and if they acknowledge ethical responsibility.
Now I realize that it takes quite a huge commitment for anyone to bother to research products before cruising over to the mall and loading up on ‘stuff’, but I am hopeful that more and more people are becoming conscious of not only where there money goes, but to who is making their ‘stuff’.
Like Timmerman says, “As consumers we vote with our pocketbooks.”
It’s obvious that Timmerman learned a lot more than the ways of the clothing industry on his voyage.
While he mostly comes off as an average guy, Timmerman often surprised me with striking musings.
“The world we come from seems to be less real in comparison to Bangladesh. A child’s laugh when surrounded by our modern luxuries isn’t as beautiful as Arifa’s daughter’s on a sultry day where hunger wakes her before the heat. A mother’s smile while chopping veggies on the floor seems more genuine than an American mother’s while dishing out mac ‘n cheese onto an Elmo plate. Nothing – a smile, a laugh, not even a single pair of underwear – is taken for granted.”
“But today, we share little with the people who make our clothes. We’re divided by oceans, politics, language, culture, and a complex web of economic relationships. If they are overworked and underpaid, it doesn’t affect our daily lives as it did during the turn of the twentieth century. So we don’t think about them much, and they don’t think about us much. We hardly seem to belong to the same organism.”
“I’m a mindless voiceless consumer wearing the clothes of mindless voiceless producers. But it doesn’t seem fair that Dewan and Zhu Chun have to work so hard for so little and I, who serve little function, work so little for so much.”
Kelsey Timmerman’s blog www.whereamiwearing.com.