My pride as a blogger usually keeps me from admitting that I read other people’s blogs. But I’ll admit that I keep up religiously with Jamie the Very Worst Missionary and she recently posted about the weird contradictions that make up her life. Not an earth shattering post for her, but there was one thing that she said in it that I really identified with. She remarked how she can be speaking passionately about social justice at an event while wearing clothes that were made by child labor in sweatshops.
This is a conundrum that I’m constantly in as well and many of us who work in a sector where any money we make depends on donations from others, where we don’t make any profit. We are supposed to be the torch bearers for social justice and the advocates for human rights, but we can’t afford to buy sustainable clothing that would match our beliefs. We could be fighting in the field to get children into school and out of factories or into healthy homes and out of slave labor while wearing clothes that were produced in those very factories but purchased a million miles away in some store that makes it easy to ignore all the implications of the great deals that we’re getting.
It’s a hypocritical paradox that I’m always aware of but try to push the nagging of my conscience aside because changing the way I shop for my clothes seems to require an effort that I’m not ready to commit to. I would like to be able to be proud of where my clothing comes from and how it was produced in addition to how it looks on me. But I’ve realized that every garment usually has a story of its own which can sometimes be just as important as its style.
I have a pair of coral pants that I bought at Belk about a year and a half ago, and the first times that I wore them were during speaking events on behalf of the work I do in Haiti. They were the kind of pants that were cool the first few times I wore them, but after a while they just start making you look like a flamboyant Santa Clause out for a round of golf. So last week I took them and chopped off about a foot of fabric from the bottom, turning them into the Haitian fad they call swag. In the US we’d call them manpris. But they’re really popular for guys here, especially if they are women’s pants that are then made into swag for men to wear. I don’t know why, I guess they make your butt look better. So my coral pants worked out perfect and now they’ve been given a new life. I always find this paradox amusing for a culture that is so anti-cross-dressing, fashion gender lines still get crossed frequently and unintentionally simply because they’re not shopping in department stores separated into men’s and women’s sections. They’re just finding what they like in the street.
So I’ve tried to make an effort while living here to buy my clothing locally as much as possible. I even own a couple pairs of those swag that were originally tailored for women’s bodies. Back in Iowa I would get a lot of funny looks if I was caught shopping in the ladies department but these pants were once purchased in one of those big stores by a woman who happened to have my size waist and she probably got plenty of use out of them before donating them to a Goodwill store where they got packed up in the excess bails of clothing and shipped to Haiti. Then some merchant found them in her bail, sold them to a tailor, who chopped off the bottoms of the legs, sewed them up, and resold them to a swag dealer who laid them out on a railing in Jacmel and resold them to me for 150 gourdes (about $3.75). These women’s pants probably started off in some sweat shop in Bangladesh or Taiwan and went on quite the journey before ending up on my body, now being the cause of multiple compliments. “Oh those pants look great on you… but aren’t the pockets a little small?”
So, now do I feel guilty that I am still wearing clothes that were probably originally made in labor conditions that were probably less than humane or do I find solace in the fact that at least a few Haitians made a few gourdes off of my purchase of these pants in the process? Do I accept that that’s just the world that we live in and do what I can with my meager budget or do I start sewing all of my own clothing out of bamboo fiber and potato sacks?
There are expats who take their fashion consciousness to this almost absurd extreme, making themselves look like they just popped out of a genie’s lamp or came from a 70’s hippie festival. And maybe in the grand scheme of things that route may be socially responsible but it still excludes the local market, which however imperfectly it fits into the global movement of goods, it is what is available to the local population that we are presuming to serve and represent. So I continue to believe that buying from them still has its merit however crooked the path may have been for the clothing to get to that point.
I have another American friend who works here that once introduced me to some visiting friends of his as “the only expat he knew that buys his clothes locally”. I took it as a compliment because I think I still look pretty damn good. That doesn’t mean that I don’t also enjoy a little retail therapy whenever I return to the States. I’ve still got plenty of those clothes from the department stores that aren’t very ethically produced and every time I travel I stock up on cheap t-shirts to bring back for my roommates. So I’m still part of the problem.
On my last trip to the US I bought some t-shirts for this purpose from Kohls and when I got back to my house to take the tags off I noticed one of the shirts was marked “Made in Haiti”. I could probably pinpoint the exact factory that it was made in and now I had purchased it in Iowa to take back to Haiti to give as a gift to one of my roommates. And I knew whoever received it would love it, it was a nice shirt. It brought to mind the Haitian proverb, “The donkey sweats so that the horse can be clothed with lace.” Some Haitian mother in another region of the country had gotten a job in a garment factory, probably hired by a Korean company, to make enough money to feed and clothe her own children by making clothes that would be shipped to the United States where I would buy them and carry them back to Haiti in my suitcase to give as a gift back to another young Haitian man who can’t afford to buy his own clothes, but still feels lucky to get “American” clothes because they’re more unique than what you find around here, even though I probably paid no more for the shirt at Kohls than I would have at the local market in Jacmel.
I may not know the particular woman who worked at the machine that made that shirt that I bought at Kohls, but I do know her. She is a woman who lives in every part of this country and would do absolutely anything, sacrifice her dignity and work like a dog to make even the most minimal amount of money, to be able to care for her family and send her kids to school. She doesn’t have any other choices and considers herself fortunate to have that opportunity however imperfect it may be. At the same time she’s tough enough to tell her boss to go screw himself if she feels mistreated and smart enough to walk away if she feels the situation isn’t good for her or her family.
So, does my purchase of the shirt made in Haiti condone an imperfect system in which she is provided an imperfect job where the alternative is no job, or would it be better to spend more money to buy some shirt that can be proven to be ethically made, possibly even in the US, thereby eliminating this Haitian mother from the cycle completely? It’s certainly not a cut and dry situation. As in most things in life there is plenty of grey area to be explored and discussed surrounding the issue and maybe no perfect solution that anyone can agree to. There are even some bright spots of some people trying to change the system and provide better alternatives that I hope can grow, but those might need to be the subject of a different blog post. For now, as long as we can all reach a consensus that without a doubt fanny packs and socks with sandals are injustices against humanity, all of the rest may just have to remain up for debate. Until a time when we can all live in fashionable, affordable, justice, may we continue to look good with the means that we have available to ourselves and continue to love one another no matter what we’re wearing.
So what’s the story of the shirt on your back or the swag on your shins? Have you ever had an identity crisis caused by the source of your clothing conflicting with your lifestyle?