Do You Know Where Your Clothes Come From?

In researching his new book, Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes author Kelsey Timmerman, who traveled all over the world visiting centers of garment productions, came to one conclusion that, to our ears, sounds shocking: he's not "always opposed" to child labor. As he says in this audio interview for US News & World Report's "Alpha Consumer" column, the issue is a "more complex" one than we care to acknowledge.

Timmerman's goal in writing the book was to force consciousness of our clothing's origins - and how closely our buying habits are connected to the fates of those who produce it. Often, he says, we oversimplify the issue, and gives the example of the infamous Kathie Lee Gifford scandal, in which we learned the talk-show host's clothing line was being produced by child labor. The outcry led to a wide-scale boycott of Bangladeshi goods; in response, factories laid off child labor. Great, right? Well, according to Timmerman, who calls it "the toughest thing I came across...a really harsh reality," not entirely.

"It turns out that a lot of these kids kids actually needed to work - these children, just because they're not working in a factory, doesn't mean they're not working at other, way worse jobs in Bangladesh...all we're doing [in boycotting] is removing our guilt."

Timmerman is at pains to elucidate that he is "not a proponent of child labor" but does urge us to remember that while we may recoil at the words, it's important to take a realistic look at the situation. What do we really imagine will happen to these children if they stop working in factories? That they'll suddenly be given opportunities for education? As Timmerman points out, the alternative is more likely begging, brick-breaking or sex work. None of which is to say child labor is acceptable; just that our knowledge and concern - and activism - needs to go beyond easy shades of black and white. Timmerman also makes the point that as an educated consumer, it's important to make distinctions between factories and true "sweatshops" rather than condemning all foreign labor as such.

But is this the best we can hope for? A measured pragmatism that finds child factory labor preferable to child prostitution? The idealist in all of us doesn't want to believe it, and shouldn't. The ultimate and only course, as the author says, is addressing the grinding poverty that creates the situation. And none of this is to say that boycotting - and, more to the point, selective and educated buying - is not important. It's essential, and should become as second-nature as questioning the provenance of the food we eat, itself a relatively recent phenomenon. Many of us are quick to think of the plight of a factory-farmed animal but still able to buy a shirt at Forever21; it's this disconnect that Timmerman's book seeks to address. His point is, we need to take the time to learn where things are produced, and under what circumstances. (Alpha Consumer emphasizes the importance of looking up where things are manufactured - a small step that nevertheless connects us to the process.) Should people boycott what they find reprehensible? Of course, but with an awareness of the realities our actions create - and the impossibility of easy answers. We could all wear nothing but locally-made artisanal garb, and that's great, but it would do nothing for the poverty in Bangladesh; in fact, it's two different issues.

I'm not advocating the disingenuous piety of trickle-down economics, just saying that when we boycott, let's also do something pro-active, be it as simple as education or as old-fashioned as a donation towards sponsoring a children's organization. Not to be a total downer, but as a society it does seem like we have to wean ourselves off of a self-satisfaction we've come to take as our due for minimal sacrifice - while all the while not being overwhelmed by the reality of the task's scope. What say you?

Podcast: How Our Clothes Are Made [US News]

Related: Where Am I Wearing?