Our Cheap Clothing: Trick or Treat?

I know. This is supposed to be a post on Louisiana. Bear with me. It's coming, next time around. But for now the mood here in the East Bay is prickly and can't be ignored. Wildfires rage on throughout California. Pungent smoke hangs in the dry air. On my walk along the Iron Horse Trail yesterday afternoon, I kept blinking away the sting. A disorienting, Christmas-like fragrance hit my nose. Broken redwood branches and brittle pine needles blanketed the path. Add to that our intermittent power outages. Has there ever been a more eerie Halloween season?

Seems a perfect time to share a couple of creepy / disturbing news items. I should mention that sewing--the art of it, the skill of it, the loss of it in this country--has been on my mind. Economists routinely marginalize garment manufacturing as some outdated endeavor unworthy of our nation's efforts. And yet, last I checked, clothing remains one of our three basic necessities, along with food and shelter. In 2018, we imported approximately $92 billion in clothing. Increasingly, we purchase clothing online. Currently, Amazon.com ranks right behind Wallmart.com in its percentage of online sales of apparel. That said, here's our first news item:

DHAKA, Bangladesh—After a 2013 factory collapse killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh, most of the biggest U.S. apparel retailers joined safety-monitoring groups that required them to stop selling clothing from factories that violated certain safety standards.

Amazon.com Inc. didn’t join.

According to a Wall Street Journal investigation, the site today offers a steady stream of clothing from dozens of Bangladeshi factories that most leading retailers have said are too dangerous to allow into their supply chains...

Ethical lines aren’t clear-cut in the global garment-supply chain, which remains a murky network in which clothes pass from factories through traders around the world...

Morgan Stanley analysts...predicted last year that Amazon was on track to pass Walmart as No. 1...

--Amazon Sells Clothes From Factories Other Retailers Blacklist, The Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2019

The investigative piece also includes a link to an earlier interview with Rozina Beguma, a Bangladeshi garment worker and survivor of the Rana Plaza collapse. It's heartbreaking to read, but please do so if you have a few minutes. Trapped under the rubble for days as she awaited rescue, Ms. Beguma says she managed to survive "by sawing off her arm."

Unfortunately, as the WSJ points out, Amazon doesn't reveal country of origin information on its website. So if you're hoping to avoid Bangladeshi-made apparel, might be best to skip Amazon altogether.

And yes, I realize that our own country's history of apparel manufacturing is littered with horrors, but public outrage over the past hundred years or so has led to changes. Employment laws, building codes, labor unions, environmental standards have been created. Violations are prosecuted. Transparency exists. Move the garment industry to "murky" offshore factories and all bets are off. And we, as consumers, are left to wonder: How did these clothes come into being? At what human cost?

Rana Plaza factory Collapse, Bangladesh (2013). Photo: thedailystar.net

On to the second news item. Heard about the Costco children's PJ's?

The Trump Administration is blocking shipments from a Chinese company making baby pajamas sold at Costco warehouses, after the foreign manufacturer was accused of forcing ethnic minorities locked in an internment camp to sew clothes against their will....

As of last weekend, the microfleece, zippered pajamas, sold under the label Absorba, were seen by an AP reporter on some Costco shelves in packs of two, for $14.99.

--NBC News, October 8, 2019

Kind of takes the joy out of a Costco bargain, doesn't it?

In her highly readable and meticulously-researched book, Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, author Elizabeth L. Cline reminds us that:

The demand for cheaper and cheaper garments has all but wiped-out the American garment industry; it's also made it very difficult for small designers and independent companies to find proper and affordable factory prices here, and to charge prices that generate fair profits and pay decent wages.

This "wipe-out" has left a dystopian, cavernous void in its wake. I can recall when downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles had bustling, thriving garment industries; a vibrancy you could witness on any given day. Now those two cities lead the nation in chronic homelessness. Leaders wring their hands, wonder what to do? Here's a thought: how about buying back our sewing machines, encouraging the revival of the garment industry?

The Garment Center was once a way for immigrants and those without college degrees to work their way up. The industry had a place for many more blue-collar and middle-class positions, including brokers, wholesalers, salesmen, printmakers, pattern-makers, cutters, and of course a veritable army of sewing-machine operators...

--Elizabeth L. Cline

In his engaging memoir Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, philosopher-mechanic Matthew B. Crawford mourns the loss of shop classes. I would add the loss of home economics (where sewing was typically taught). Beginning in the 1990s these classes, deemed irrelevant, were replaced by subjects meant to prepare students for future jobs as "knowledge workers." Crawford reminds us that manual work can be satisfying, joyful. It can feed the soul; build self-reliance. It's anything but irrelevant:

This book advances a nestled set of arguments on behalf of work that is meaningful because it is useful...Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces...Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on obscure forces of a global economy.

--Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

So true.

In many ways sewing actually is alive and well. Not on the industrialized, mass-produced scale we once had, but maybe we don't want that anymore anyway. Thanks to Instagram and Etsy, we can find endless sources of domestically-produced / hand-sewn items.

One of my daughters recently told me about Vickery Trading Co. in Dallas, Texas. Launched a couple of years ago by Stephanie Giddens, this fast-growing apparel brand is actually a "social business" that's positively transforming the lives of refugees living in Dallas.

Photo: Vickery Trading Co.

A few years ago Ms. Giddens (on the right above), a trained minister, prayed for guidance as to how she could help empower marginalized women in her own community. The answer? Sewing. "I would need a 'show me' skill that wouldn't require English," she recently told an audience gathered at the Dallas Theological Seminary. "Sewing was a good fit." Read more about her incredible business here. And while you're at it, check out the beautifully, happily, ethically-made clothing items.

All-Star volunteer Cynthia (whose grandmother happens to be a refugee!!) helping us get ready for the holidays. --Vickery Trading Co. Photo: Vickery Trading Co.

See volunteer-Cynthia's stack of holiday flannel pants, all cut-out and ready to be sewn? Now that's a treat. Happy Halloween.