Monday’s New York Times carried a report by the photojournalist who covered the collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh. The article, which you can read on the New York Times web site if you are smarter than I am, lists the labels on the clothes the reporter found in the ruins of the factory.
I expect these are the labels on the clothes we all buy. The prices are good, and we often can’t, or don’t want, to look at any other details of their manufacture; it’s been a while since I’ve heard well-off women joke about shopping at “Targee” so perhaps we have learned, at least, to shut up about it.
Last Christmas, I made a decision, arrived at haphazardly, to buy only clothes made in the U.S.A.—as that proud old label used to announce before we gutted the union that protected it.
It’s not as difficult as you might think to find what you want. Yes, these items will cost a little more, but their quality is superior and they will last longer, withstanding wear and washing, a plus for those of us who have, as reluctantly as I have, given up shopping as recreation.
I started with a warm woolen winter jacket I imagined would be suitable for outdoor work. It is carried at an outfitter’s store in Santa Fe, a small operation run by a couple of people with a commitment to carrying clothes made here. It’s a beautiful dark blue jacket designed for surveyors and so it has a lot of useful pockets.
I didn’t get in much outdoor work this winter because of the time I spend on writing my next book but one. However, the jacket is waiting with the kind of patience that sturdy garments seem to exude.
A few days after buying the jacket, I went to the mammoth R.E.I. that put our local outfitter out of business. I wanted a waterproof, warm, down winter parka.
The young saleswoman was mystified when I asked her if they carried any such jackets made in the U.S.A. We examined an enormous array, all nice looking and apparently practical, but they were all made in third world countries; Bangladesh was not listed on the labels but factories like the one that collapsed certainly were represented.
There were no made in the U.S.A. jackets for me to buy at R.E.I.
I asked the saleswomen if there was anything available in the enormous store made in the U.S.A. She found some winter socks, from Vermont. That was all.
Part of my mission involves getting to know whoever is waiting on me and hoping to light a spark of interest. It does happen.
This may be more difficult here in too-soft, too-sunny southern California where there only seem to be people bent on having a good time, although a fair number of those people are dark-skinned. The two homeless bodies tucked in with their belongings under an abandoned lifeguard stand seem to be invisible, although the town is hoping to pass an initiative next week permitting some housing for the homeless to be built. I don’t know if it will pass.
Here, I needed and wanted a sunhat. The one I had with me was so hideous I’ve left it for other less face-conscious guests.
The little store I went to had quite a few hats, but the owner seemed bewildered by my question. He complained, “You ask a lot of questions!” since I’d also inquire about the fibers in the big handsome sun hat I’d tried on. I didn’t asked about the price, which at that moment was less important to me than the other issues.
He called his wife, who emerged from the back room and deciphered the label inside the brim, the print so small I couldn’t read it, then announced with a degree of triumph that indeed the hat was made in the U.S.A.
Of course that leaves unanswered where the paper fibers that make up my hat came from, how they were processed, and so forth, and many other questions that might have meant, in the end, that I would need to reject the hat.
But at least by asking I retained in my mind pictures of the weeping women after the collapse of the unstable, badly maintained factory at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where the labels in the tangled remains of clothes made there should remind us, if we care to be reminded, of our responsibility.
And we are not powerless. One of the great moments in the history of The Civil Rights Movement—April 11th, 1970—occurred when African-Americans in Atlanta boycotted Rich’s Department Store where traditionally they spent a lot of money buying Easter suits and hats.
They were not allowed to try on clothes in the store’s dressing rooms or place the hats on their heads, unless their heads were first wrapped in tissue paper. They were protesting low wages as well as these to their personal dignity. And so they boycotted Rich’s and went without Easter finery.
The loss of the expected Easter profits gave that store owner something to think about.
Even in our small, individual way, we can have the same effect.
[The Times website also includes a short, powerful video which accompanies the piece. You can watch the video separately here.]