why fair trade clothing production is so complicated
As we approach the end of Fashion Revolution Week in remembering the horrible Rana Plaza factory collapse three years ago, I have been thinking a lot about what a fashion revolution would mean. The movement asks us to question clothing companies about who makes their clothes. This is why I started Liz Alig, after getting to know the kinds of people who make our clothes in India and Central America I started asking the same question. Who made my clothes? So I understand how important this question is.
But after being in the industry for several years I have also come to realize that the answer to this question is not an easy one. The production of our clothes is so closely tied to poverty - it is difficult to understand how to solve one without the other. Should companies pay their factories more, absolutely! Should we be curious about the lives of the people who make our clothes - yes! But is is not a problem that will be solved overnight or just by paying people more.
I recently spent several weeks living with our producer group in rural Haiti. To give you a little context, this group is in the middle of nowhere in Haiti, a five mile drive to any major city. It reminds of the bush in Africa. I lived with a family of ten people in their two bedroom house. They have no electricity, no running water, the market is an hour motorcycle ride. The truth is I love being in this slow paced environment! I love their focus on family and community.
Haitians are infamous for assuming because you are white, you are there to give them things. They assume because you are from America you have money. And honestly, it is a lot easier to go in and give things away rather then sit back and become one of them. So, this was my goal on this trip. To just be with them for long enough amount of time that they would understand this was not about me coming in and telling them how to do things. I was there for a week by myself with my very limited creole vocabulary...so this was inevitable to happen. I could do nothing on my own.
One Saturday the mother of the house was going to walk to the market (a 3 hour walk in 90 degree heat). I was going a little stir crazy and needed to see something besides their dusty road. So after thirty minutes of me begging and them laughing hysterically at the idea, I finally convinced her that a white girl could walk three hours to the market without dying. And while they probably picked the wrong person to say, "You can't..." to, it was amazing to me that all the women there really did not think it was possible for me to walk to the market!
Just so you know I did make it back alive : ) But this whole experience reaffirmed how many layers there are to helping those living in what we would consider poverty. How does a people who don't think we are the same even work together? How can we get anywhere if they honestly think people from the Western World have enough money to feed their entire village, but can not walk several miles. To be fair this may be true of some of us but the vast majority are not rich enough to solve all their problems with money.
I love this quote from the book Where am I Wearing that describes the complexity of the problem, "Does a mother who sends her eight year old daughter off for a day of picking up plastic bottles, or begging, or working in a factory love her daughter any less than a mother in the United States who sends her daughter to school? Is she being immoral? My conclusion, after visiting Bangladesh, is that we should not be ashamed that our clothes are made by children so much as ashamed we live in a world where child labor is often necessary for survival. Child labor or not, the working conditions in Bangladesh's garment and textile industries are the living conditions of the country. This is the culture of poverty. Not having children make our clothes does not eliminate the reality that many children in Bangladesh must work, but it eliminates our guilt in the matter. It clears our consciences and helps us forget that we live in such a world." Timmerman, Where am I Wearing?
We should be asking who makes our clothes, we should be asking how much they are getting paid. But at the same time we need to understand clothing factories are and have always been connected with poverty. We can not ask one question without understanding their context. We can not try to solve their poverty with fair trade if we do not really understand them or the root of the problem.
I have seen the difference fair trade makes for whole families and communities. I still will choose to buy clothes that are made ethically. I will still be pretty angry if you tell me you bought something at Forever 21, and I still think we CAN NOT let something like the Rana Factory collapse happen again, but I do think as the fair trade fashion movement grows it is important to not idealize something that is messy. Solving poverty has always been complicated. I have seen time and again the only change that will come is when we can work together and use each others resources rather than just assuming we have the answers to their problems.