Nagged by the rags: The daunting task of buying clothes made in the U.S.A.
A mother of six strives to align her spending with her conscience.
“Are you serious?” my husband asked over the commotion of the evening supper table. “We don’t buy foreign-made clothes anymore? When did that happen?”
The answer: April 24 at Rana Plaza.
For me, the collapse of the clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, was less an epiphany and more of a last straw. Over the past few years, a nagging little voice had been questioning the ethics of my wardrobe. The rubble and corpses of Rana Plaza demanded I do something about it.
As a busy mom, student and writer, the idealistic, cause-embracing days of youth had long given way to more practical realities. But over time, our family has made a number of habit changes in an effort to live as ethically, sustainably and healthfully as possible – always, by necessity, with budget in mind.
These efforts have included the usual checklist of recycling, composting, shopping for local produce, gardening, carpooling, decreasing energy use at home and buying natural and organic food products. But the clothes on our backs and the shoes on our feet remained largely undisturbed.
It’s not that I was unaware of sustainability messaging in the apparel industry. I had simply, for the most part, ignored it. One big reason was that organic cotton T-shirts and eco-friendly clogs remained out of my price range.
Nice idea, but we’d need a third income to start clothing a family of eight in Hanna Andersson and Patagonia. Even more compelling was the abundance of cheap, ready goods found in big box stores such as Target and Walmart, large online retailers like Overstock and OldNavy.com, and smaller web bargain boutiques – I admit it, Zulily had become something of an addiction.
Not only did these offerings keep our clothing budget under control – less than $300 for four children’s school uniforms and shoes last year – it gave me elbow room to impulse buy. I took no little pride in clothing my family on sale rack purchases – virtual and brick-and-mortar – of $10 or less.
The problem was, most of my bargains bore tags of origin a half a world away. As little as I was paying for the products, their makers were earning much less working 12-hour days in dangerous conditions – all so I could fill my closets with fashion throw-aways.
It should be noted that budget brands aren’t the only ones to take advantage of Asia’s bottom-barrel pricing allure. Companies such as Gap, Espirit and North Face, along with high-end clothiers including Armani, Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss, have reportedly outsourced manufacturing to Bangladeshi manufacturers.
But the catastrophe in Dhaka put a human cost on my budget-friendly, impulse-driven ways. With more than 1,100 souls crushed beneath the precarious rubble of American spending habits, I could no longer feign ignorance or make excuses.
Who was I to claim budgetary constraints when Bangladeshi factory workers made less than $40 a month? Against the backdrop of lifeless bodies and tear-streaked faces, my prudent, spur-of-the-moment shopping habits suddenly seemed horrifying.
That cloud of dust and grief transformed my idea of sustainability. Here I had been taking what I considered thoughtful measures to protect Earth’s finite resources while overlooking its most precious inhabitants: people.
Something had to change.
I had already begun to discover vintage shopping – trolling second-hand clothing stores for unique, quality finds at bargain prices. (Yes, those clothes may have been made overseas, but I am not supporting a particular brand.) And, for a variety of personal reasons, I was simply buying less. By shopping only when I actually needed something, I had greater budget leeway to purchase American-made or ethically sourced goods.
But it’s not been easy, either to develop a criteria for such purchases or to find the goods themselves. Since the tragedy in Bangladesh, there have been plenty of news stories in the mainstream press, along with a smattering of blogs devoted to the subject, each with their anecdotal list of worker-friendly products and practices. But very little exists in terms of real standards or comprehensive sources for socially conscious products.
For example, Fair Trade USA, which certifies companies according to a set of standards for fair-worker practices, has only recently launched a pilot apparel program. Another company, Provenance, armed with a mission to serve as an online clearinghouse for transparency in sourcing and manufacturing practices of a variety of consumer products, is still in start-up phase.
The most comprehensive guide and system for grading the practices of companies in the apparel industry has been produced by Free2Work, a project supported by the International Labor Rights Forum. However, the list of companies they analyze, while fairly long and inclusive of many mainstream brands, is still limited. And one look at the criteria – multiple factors divided into five sub-categories that detail manufacturing from textile sourcing to child labor – shows how daunting the research process is for somebody like me.
The most comprehensive information for the socially conscious consumer has been developed in Europe, which has taken more immediate, expansive strides in responding to consumer clamor for these products. The U.S. retailer-driven effort has been slower and received criticism for inadequately addressing the problem of worker exploitation.
What I keep turning up in my quest for shoes and clothing that are American-made and/or worker-friendly are green products. Eco fashion, green, organic and sustainable seem to be everywhere. But few of these companies address the labor conditions involved in their creation.
There’s PlanetShoes, for example, an online purveyor of eco-conscious products that will even allow customers, for a small extra fee, to offset the carbon footprint of shipping. However, there is no reference on the company website to product sourcing or fair worker practices.
Crocs brags about its shoe donations in impoverished nations but does not mention the impoverished workers that may be making them. Even American-made clothiers often feature a short statement of their domestic credentials without offering any information about where their textiles come from.
Like me, businesses have been thinking green without including human beings in the environmental cost equation.
As I channel my consumer spending toward this new concept of green, I have to be realistic. Change takes time, and there’s only so much time I can spend ferreting out the most socially conscious products in every category of spending.
Did I deny my son his birthday request of a bright red karate suit because I didn’t know its history? No. Can I afford to outfit the entire family in New Balance sneakers? I wish.
But as a friend of mine – who no longer buys at Walmart and is currently boycotting North Face for failing to sign Bangladesh’s Fire and Building Safety Accord – said: “The truth is, I doubt I can be perfect with this, but I am trying to be more aware.”
So will the companies that want our business.