Your Clothes Connect You to the World

Last St. Patty’s Day, my friend Steph and I took a bus trip to New York. Many on the bus had intentions of hitting the parade and drinking as much beer as possible in honor of the day. Steph and I went to look at the site of a factory fire. (Well, that’s not all we did; we also split an amazing pastrami rueben at Katz’s Deli, savored delectable treats from Magnolia Bakery and munched cheese samples from Dean & Deluca.)

But Steph is a history professor, so while we wandered Greenwich Village, we strolled to the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. There, 146 people died in an 18-minute fire because the stairwell doors were locked to prevent theft. That fire brought about many workplace reforms, but at the cost of so many lives, the lives of mostly young women, 50 of whom jumped to their deaths from the eighth floor.

Two weeks ago, Steph posted on Facebook a link to an article on the garment factory fire in Pakistan. Somewhere around 300 people died in the fire. I could find no definitive total—maybe because the company “had officially registered just 250 workers even though in reality as many as 1,000 people worked there” according to a quote in The New York Times. Once again the paths to safety were minimal—there was only one open exit, and bars on the window prevented escape that way.

Discussion on Steph’s post included the recommendation to read The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, by Pietra Rivoli. I read that awhile back, and it does help you understand where your clothes come from and where they go when you are done with them.

I also mentioned, though, Where Am I Wearing? by Kelsey Timmerman, which I owned but hadn’t read yet. I just finished it and found it to be a quick yet thought-provoking read. Timmerman was a travel writer who decided to follow his clothes back to their factory of origin in an attempt to meet the workers who made them. (He’s currently at work on his next book, Where Am I Eating? due out in 2013.)

While he isn’t totally successful (the clothes he chooses to follow are quite old), he does meet with workers in factories in each of the countries from which his clothes originated. He learns more about their lives and their challenges.

He wrestles with how to decide which clothes to buy and which to avoid. In his last chapter he talks of what it means to be an engaged consumer—checking out the companies before you buy, asking questions, communicating with your favorite brands about your values and what you want to see.

The book has been updated since I got it in 2008. (Yes, it took me that long to get around to reading it; it was sliver of the 200 unread books I moved from Delaware.) I would love to read the section on how worldwide garment workers are coping since the financial crisis.

Only engaged consumers can help ensure that the Pakistani fire isn’t the norm and instead inspires change. The Triangle fire bettered the lives of American workers forever. May the garment workers in Pakistan also leave a legacy of change. We can be the catalyst for change.

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