Monday, April 22, 2013

Where Do You Wear?

 Earth Day is here again! Since it began in 1970, it has been a challenge to all of us to remember what we should be doing to take care of our home…the only home we have. And our honey-do list is long when it comes to what we need to do to make the earth a better place to live – indeed, to save it for generations to come so they can live here, too.

The Earth Day theme this year as set by the UU Ministry for Earth is “Working Towards Sustainable Communities”:

          “The need for sustainable communities – ones that are economically, environmentally, and socially healthy and resilient – has never been stronger. The current and future impacts of our changing climate and extreme weather events affect the lives of families and communities across the country; our out-of-control materialistic consumer culture challenges Earth’s finite resources and contributes to environmental degradation; many in our increasingly diverse society endure an unequal burden of economic and environmental injustices; and social isolation and loss of meaning in life continue to be an all-too-familiar fact of life for many. Resilient sustainable communities offer integrated solutions to many of these challenges when they are based on long-range perspectives, reflect their local circumstances, and speak to the needs of current and future residents. The Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth (UUMFE) is focusing this year’s Earth Day resources on Sustainable Communities because we believe such communities, with their focus on realizing and sustaining a just and equitable world, embody our mission and reflect key Unitarian Universalist principles. For Earth Day 2013, the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth (UUMFE) is asking congregations to connect to issues related to realizing sustainability and to commit to actions that will help build a sustainable and just world, one congregation and one community at a time.” (

Today my message concerns something that we take for granted: the clothes we wear everyday. But who makes those clothes? Are they getting a fair wage for making them? Are they making them in acceptable working conditions? Are they working with dangerous machinery? Are they children?

Lots of questions we could ask, and here is another one for you to ponder:
If you had to choose between buying a piece of clothing that costs $20 and you are not sure how it was made, and one that is certified as not made in a sweatshop but costs $25, which one would you buy?”

My sermon title for today, "Where do you wear?" is based on Where Are You Wearing, the title of a book written by a young man named Kelsey Timmerman. In it he describes how he embarked on a global tour to the countries, factories, and people that make our clothes. He writes: “One day while staring at a pile of clothes on the floor, I noticed the tag of my favorite t-shirt: MADE IN HONDURAS.
I read the tag. My mind wandered.
A quest was born.”

Earlier, we saw our children as they looked at the tags of their clothing and tried to imagine who the people were who made them. Maybe their parents will help them look up on the web the name of the brand, and maybe they can find out where the clothing is made and even who made it. They might even think to themselves that when they get older, they might like to do what Kelsey did and travel around the world to different places.

Kelsey is no radical activist, he didn’t do this for a newspaper expose, I don’t know if he is even a Unitarian Universalist! He didn’t think at first about creating a sustainable and just world, - in fact he really didn’t know what to expect when he decided to become a ‘consumer on a quest’…except that he was finishing college, he didn’t want to become engaged to his girlfriend yet, he didn’t want to grow up yet. With a degree in anthropology he set off in eager anticipation to meet people who lived in exotic faraway locations very different from his home in the flat fields of Ohio. He did first go to Honduras, but it was more of a beach bum experience, although he did meet  a worker from the factory that made his t-shirt.

But the idea would not let go of him, even when he went back home, got engaged, bought a home and a flat-screen tv. So he took out a second mortgage and went into the world of the globalized garment industry. Kelsey says that he’d learned about globalization in school and had negatively associated it with the problems Americans faced when factories closed and work went overseas. He’d heard the term ‘sweatshop’ in sociology class, and had the image of “dark, sweaty, abusive, dehumanizing, evil sweatshops” (4). But his travels made him an engaged consumer, aware of the complexity of the garment industry. He asks “What are we to do as consumers? If we buy garments made in some developing country, we are contributing to an industry built on laborers whose wages and quality of life would be unacceptable to us. But if we don’t, the laborers might lose their jobs.” (10)

One place Kelsey went was to Bangladesh, because that was where his favorite underwear came from – they were faded boxer shorts with a Christmas ornament design on them, with the words ‘Jingle These’! What he found was not the exact factory – there were too many. But he was treated like a rock star – being a blond, blue-eyed foreigner, he was a real rarity. He met village elders and the village chairman, who sent out for soft drinks and cookies; he was challenged to play kabbadi, an amazingly fast-paced game on a court where you try to reach your opponents baseline while chanting "kabbadi, kabbadi." The villagers let Kelsey win.

Then he met an underwear business executive, and then was taken to a few factories. Kelsey comments that for him, the true meaning of the word ‘sweatshop’ really comes from the intense heat that hit him as he entered, especially in the color dye factory where furnaces helped to set the color. But then he met some of the young workers, teenagers using wooden sticks to help push the cloth into the furnaces, others who prepared rolls of thread for feeding into machines. And here is where Kelsey began to reflect uneasily on what he saw, and contrasting the scene with how American children live. 

Kelsey met many workers in his travels: Arifa from Bangladesh, who worked at a garment factory and hoped to make enough money to support her family so that she is not forced to send another child to work in Saudi Arabia – one of her sons who is 18 is there, and he sends half his paycheck home to her each month. He makes $146 a month.  In China, at the factory where his flipflops were made Kelsey met a husband and wife, who, because they need to pay off debt, work long hours and rarely see their son. He even went into a Wal-Mart near Guangzhou; he was greeted by a Wal-Mart greeter and saw flat-screen tvs that cost over a thousand dollars. He saw Barbies that were Caucasian, and the speakers in the dairy section were blaring the Queen anthem ‘We Will Rock You”. And he spoke with a store manager and asked him, “Some people back home won’t shop at Wal-mart because most of their products are made in China. Do people in China not shop at Wal-Mart because it is an American company?” (208)

He was told no, and that Wal-Mart was an exciting place to work. Because more and more Chinese are moving from rural to urban areas there will be more Wal-Marts to accommodate their consumer needs.
Interesting that Wal-Mart was in the news just before Christmas because of a factory fire in Bangladesh. The fire killed over one hundred workers who were making clothes for Wal-mart .According to a Huffington Post report, Bangladeshi factories often ignore safety precautions in order to supply major retailers in the US and Europe (  - this fire was caused when an exit door was locked, but also fire extinguishers didn’t work. When a fire alarm went off the workers were told to stay at their machines, and they became trapped or jumped from windows eight floors down to their deaths. This sounds depressingly familiar.

In 1911 a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City took the lives of 146 young immigrant workers; the youngest was only 14 years old. Fire inspections and safety precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. Survivors spoke about how they tried to open the ninth floor doors to the stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked by the factory owners, who’d claimed in the past that because workers stole materials they needed to lock the exit doors. Even if the workers got out onto the ninth floor fire escape, it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the fire. “Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters' ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive.” (

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire at least led “to the transformation of the labor code of New York State, and to the adoption of fire safety measures that served as a model for the whole country”; and the desperate working conditions drove workers to form unions, such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union.

A century later, “Recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Ninety-eight percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death.” (

So what can we do, when we know that even here in the US working conditions are still not ideal? Remember the question I asked about how you would choose between buying a piece of clothing for $20 but not knowing where it was made, or buying one that s certified as not being made in a sweatshop for $25? A poll by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 61% of those polled said they would pay $5 more for the piece certified as not being made in a sweatshop.

Maybe we can work with the industry to produce a new labeling system that would tell us about the working conditions…except that there are problems with that, like the changing conditions of factories when they’re bought by new owners.

In Where Are You Wearing? Kelsey suggests that we ask ourselves what kind of consumers we are: if we are bargain hunters who just want a good deal, then we are not concerned with who made our clothes or where they were made. If we are patriotic consumers who just want to buy American, there are companies like American Apparel that sell only American clothing and give their workers fair wages and benefits. And if we want clothes that are made by workers who get fair treatment and a living wage, we can find them online at sites like No Sweat Apparel.

When we talk about sustainability and the ‘unequal burden of economic and environmental injustices that exist on our planet, maybe we need to think about being consumers who make a low-impact on the environment and buy secondhand clothing or even make our own clothes. But in today’s world, whatever kinds of consumers we’ve been in the past, we can become engaged consumers who base our buying decisions on our research.

Last fall, I gave this book to the students in my Intercultural Communication class as an assignment. They were asked to research the origins of some of the typical items of clothing that they wear. And most of them were very surprised at what they found out. They were shocked that some of the most popular brands are not the most ethical when it comes to how the companies treat their workers or the earth. As teens many of them had purchased clothes from Aeropostale or Abercrombie and Fitch.

In a study done on the people who manufacture Aeropostale clothing, Geoffrey Vollmer found that some of their clothing was produced in Sri Lanka, where the average wage is 2500 rupies a month, the equivalent of 32 US dollars. The main workforce of Sri Lanka’s garment industry are single young women, and factories typically have poor working condition. Vollmer fund that ‘in most factories workers only get 30 minutes for a lunch break, less than enough time to eat lunch and go to the toilet. In fact in 2002 the government of Sr Lanka made laws that force women to work more overtime, up to 60 hours; and they also are forced to use restroom tokens for their restroom breaks. Sexual harassment is frequent, and occupational health and safety practices are either poor or almost nonexistent. ( )

According to the International Labor Rights Forum, Abercrombie and Fitch has the dubious honor of having made the Top Ten Sweatshop Hall of Fame in 2010: clothing is manufactured at the Alta Mode factory in the Phillippines, and employees of the factory tried to form a union to address concerns. On the day when the worker’s union was to be certifies all of the more than 100 members and officer were placed on forced leave. Abercrombie and Fitch does not have a code of conduct and has employed factory inspectors who have missed or not reported safety issues.

Some of us might buy Hanes or LL Bean products. They too appear in the Sweatshop Hall of Fame because of their use of cotton from Uzbekistan. The Uzbeck government has mandated children as young as 7 to work in cotton fields during the late summer harvest, even if they miss the start of the school year. More than 25 companies have committed to boycotting the use of Uzbeck cotton, but although Hanes and LLBean have been contacted about the issue they refuse to address it. ( )

Kelsey suggests visiting the websites of companies who make products you’re interested in to see if they monitor the factories that make them. He says that the Fair Labor Association is an organization that companies can affiliate with; Patagonia Inc belongs to the FLA and on its website has a feature called The Footprint Chronicles. You can trace the footprint a product leaves on the environment – from the raw materials used to make it, to the manufacturing and distribution of it. You can also go to to find clothing companies that are helping to grow a ‘green economy for people and the planet’.

When we become engaged consumers, we will choose companies whose values echo ours when we decide on what role we want shopping to play in our lives. We as Unitarian Universalists have the Seventh Principle to guide us when we are reflecting on our roles as consumers: the interdependent web of life, of which we are a part, is never more apparent when we look into where we wear. It helps us to see our shared humanity with those workers who sewed your jacket or colored this scarf.

As Kelsey says in the conclusion of his book, “When I walk into my closet, I think about the hundreds – if not thousands – of people around the world who had a hand in making my clothes. Jeans are no longer just jeans, shirts are no longer just shirts, shoes no longer just shoes, clothes are no longer just clothes. Each is an untold story.” (243)

May the stories our clothes tell us open our hearts and minds and may we be moved to do our part to create sustainable communities for ourselves and our children.

Gaye W. Ortiz
April 21 2013