Towards the end of every semester, I ask my anthropology students to conduct an inventory of their closets. It is both a nod to In Small Things Forgotten (the bible of undergraduate archaeology) and a bit of a wakeup call, especially when I invite my students to share their inventories and they sheepishly admit to things like “19 hoodies” or “45 pairs of sneakers.”
To drive the point home, I have them tally up the cost of whatever they’re currently wearing and divide that total by their average hourly wage. They’re usually shocked, especially if they have to factor contacts or expensive jewelry into the equation.
We then talk about where their clothes were manufactured (oftentimes Bangladesh or Honduras) and what we usually call those sorts of places (third world countries). Once we’ve teased out the finer points of globalization, the shortcomings of Modernization theory (which came to fruition during the Cold War) and the Catch-22 effects of multinational corporations, we wrap up by watching We Buy, Who Pays?
We Buy, Who Pays is one of my favorite films, not because it’s fun to watch but because it makes you think.
(Spoiler alert: if you’re particularly addicted to shopping at H&M, you’re not going to like this post… If, however, you’d like to learn more, you can stream the film for free from CultureUnplugged by clicking on the link.)
The film offers a behind-the-scenes look at clothing production in India, everything from shoes to jeans, and as you can probably well imagine, it’s not pretty. Due to a variety of factors, including government corruption and enormous disparities in wealth, exploitation is pretty much par for the course, from men working in tanneries without protective gloves to shield them from the toxic chemicals needed to process leather, to under aged girls being bused to and from the factories because child labor is illegal but tolerated, so long as it’s out of the public view. They’re not allowed the drink anything during the day to keep them from wasting time waiting in line for the restroom.
By the end of the film, some of my students are starting to realize that these deplorable conditions are not, in fact, simply the fault of the workers (“Why don’t they just unionize and demand better pay?”) or the CEOs of companies like H&M (“If they weren’t so greedy, some of their profits could go into improving the factories”) or even the governments of countries like India (“It’s their fault for letting this happen”). Rather, it is all of our faults.
We’re the ones who shop at H&M.
We’re the ones who reap the benefits of this exploitation every time we shop.
And, unfortunately, we’re the ones who would rather pay $5 for a t-shirt so that we can have one in every color than pay $30 for a single, well made garment.
It’s part of our enculturation, which is anthropology-speak for the process of social interaction through which human beings acquire their culture (which, in this case, refers to our beliefs, values and behaviors). As such, we’re essentially programmed to think that having five shirts is better than having one, and our social interactions reinforce these beliefs.
Some of us recognize this, but our clothes have symbolic value (which is why you’re supposed to wear a suit to a job interview instead of your pjs). Thus, even if we wanted to go for a single, well-made garment instead of the variety of cheaper options, we have consider what would other people think?
That we don’t have another set of clothes?
That we can’t afford another set of clothes?
It’s all well and good to say we don’t care about how other people perceive us, but there’s a reason we have the saying “The clothes make the man.”
“What would you all think,” I ask my students, “If your professor showed up wearing the same outfit every class? What assumptions would you make about me? About my socioeconomic status? My attention to personal hygiene?”
They’re usually too embarrassed to answer, which is fine by me. I was student once, and a fairly snarky one at that. I know what I would have thought. And I know what I still think today when I see people dressed in jorts or what I like to call Evangelical Christian homeschool mom denim jumpers.
But what’s the answer? Stop reading magazines? Ignore the trends? Swear off shopping all together? Go back to making our own clothes?
I love to sew and even I wouldn’t want to assume that sort of responsibility.
(Firstly because normal sewing bores me; I be stuck walking around in evening gowns all day. Secondly, there are millions of people around the world who depend on textile production to make a living; I wouldn’t want to take that away from them just as I wouldn’t want other, less qualified hobbyists taking away the work that I do. Thirdly, I’m pretty sure that the feminist movement would essentially collapse if we were all to go back to making our own clothes; although weaving was and remains a male domain in some parts of the world, spinning has always been “women’s work.”)
I will say this though: I don’t shop at H&M anymore.
Or Walmart or Joyce Leslie or Old Navy or Burlington Coat Factory.
I also don’t shop at Macy’s or other fancy department stores, not only because I can’t afford to but because even though the clothing costs more, it’s difficult to establish how much more of that is actually being paid to workers.
Now before you think I’m standing here on my soapbox pointing fingers, I will confess that I have cheated: once when I bought new towels at Macy’s shortly after purchasing my first house (but I had a gift card…) and once when PIC shamed me into buying new underwear at Target (I was, admittedly, hanging onto some very scraggly pairs).
Aside from that, though, it’s been either second hand or fair trade, and I like to think I still manage to put together a decent outfit more days than not.
This, however, is MY closet:
I have always been this way. And because I’m a dancer, I regular justify hanging onto things I don’t need because I “might use it as a costume someday.” Also, because you can’t wear the same thing to teach anthropology that you wear to teach tap, I’m in the habit of changing outfits multiple times in one day, and I never know what to do with those already-worn-but-not-quite-ready-for-the-laundry items so they just end up getting piled. I also suffer from a rather unique condition called I-love-nice-clothes-but-hate-to-iron-them so I almost never wear my nice clothes because they’re always wrinkled.
After much soul searching (and numerous bouts of frantic pile-rummaging for the yoga pants that must be in there somewhere) I realized that I’d simply replaced one addiction with another: hitting the thrift shop instead of hitting the mall.
Which is why, last weekend, I decided it was time to Kondo.
More on that tomorrow.