Thursday, May 9, 2013

Where's That T-Shirt From? Ethics, Shopping, and Growing Kids

So I've been thinking a lot lately about clothes. How much we own; how much we wear; how much it costs; where it comes from. When I heard about the factory collapse in Bangladesh, I immediately wanted to know what in my closet could have originated there. All it takes is a t-shirt or a towel, and at once the far-away horror on the news is made personal.

I'm thinking about this especially now, because it's coming to the end of the school year and my big kids' uniform clothes are in tatters. On the weekends, they each wear the same two or three outfits over and over. Much of what is in their closets, for one reason or another, does not get worn. Soon it will be summer, and they will need the requisite number of t-shirts and shorts to get them through camp. But where should these clothes come from?

When Bella was in second grade, her class did a theme study on textiles. The idea was to learn about the processes of how things are made by focusing on a specific product, from agriculture to manufacturing. One assignment had the kids looking on garment tags and recording the type of material and the place of origin (T-shirt: cotton, China; Jacket: polyester, Bangladesh).  Far-flung spots like Indonesia, Pakistan, and India were injected into our family's consciousness via our clothing. But to what end?

As part of that unit, Bella's class went on a field trip to a rare working schmata factory in Brooklyn (and I chaperoned: an experience unforgettable for many reasons, but not least because I had baby Louisa strapped to me in a Moby Wrap (cotton, Thailand)--not the typical place to bring an infant.) The factory was busy, the workers were friendly, and the business, we were told by the owners, was at risk. Why? Because of the demand for cheap clothes made in places with cheap labor and zero protections for workers. There was undoubtedly much lost on the seven- and eight-year-olds, many of whom were simply captivated by the big machines and bolts of bright patterned cloth. But the fact that this factory still even exists on our shores is nothing short of amazing to me.

I'm not the only one thinking about the origins of our clothes right now. As the NY Times pointed out, "The revolution that has swept the food industry is expanding to retail: origins matter." Last week on Fresh Air I heard an interview with Elizabeth Cline, who has written a book about the many costs of our society's addiction to cheap clothes. She pointed out that Americans used to spend a much larger percentage of their earnings on clothing. Today, we expect clothes to be dirt cheap, and many people buy a whole new wardrobe (or at least a new outfit) each season.

When Terry Gross asked Cline if her shopping habits have changed since researching and writing this book, she said they had. The main thing she tries to do, now, is wear what she has and take good care of her clothes--and if she needs a few new things, she tries to shop vintage and looks for durable, rather than disposable, garments.

Sounds logical, right? Just buy a few things, make them good things, and take care of them. But as Cline was talking, I found myself wondering about the special case of children. They are growing, and until they stop, they will continue to need new clothes (Eeek! For us that's still a lot of years!). I have the benefit of having three daughters, so I can hand down from one to the next (although once clothes have been through Ruby there's often not much left to hand to Louisa. Also, living in NYC, we are seriously short on space, so I don't always choose to hold onto Ruby's clothes for the 6.5 year hiatus 'til they will fit Louisa).

All this brings me to my point. Bella needs clothes for camp! In the past, I would buy cheap stuff from Old Navy and Target and send her on her way. But it just doesn't feel right to me, knowing what I now know. I would love to buy ethically sourced garments, but it's too expensive to outfit her from American Apparel or the like.

Anyone else out there in my situation, with clothing needs and bags to give away? I'm thinking a kids' summer clothing swap may be in order. Please be in touch if you're in or near NYC, and you're interested.


  1. Good luck with your swap. I've been blessed with a great hand-me-down connection here in Columbus for Cora and buy nearly all my own stuff, as well as clothes for the older kids, from consignment shops. I generally feel better not giving my money directly to the big clothing giants who are taking advantage of folks overseas, however, I'm not sure I'm doing them any favors with this strategy. Perhaps I should be spending more money on ethically produced clothes demonstrating the interest in them. But, I'm with you. The "real" costs of things would require some serious reconsideration of our household budget.

    1. Thanks, Jodi. I think there are different ways to approach the problem and I wonder, also, about taking away opportunities in developing nations, where people feed their families because of the clothing industry. I think that taking a page from the food world seems like a step in the right direction: i.e. fair trade chocolate and coffee, why not fair trade t-shirts? But that would mean that producers would really have to know who is making their shirts (not always the case today). In the meantime, score one for you on the hand-me-downs. I'm going to check out some consignment stores 'round here.


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