Writing left handed

The Plague of Stuff: We Buy, Who Pays?

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.”

Lots of Shoes

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.

Oh those jean shorts...

Oh those jean shorts…

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:

Note the horrific out-into-the-bedroom spillage

Note the horrific out-into-the-bedroom spillage

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.

27 Responses to “The Plague of Stuff: We Buy, Who Pays?”

        • Kat Richter

          For sure! I always feel like whenever I purge though, I just have to go and do it again the next year. Do you end up getting re-cluttered as well? I’ve been trying to figure out a more permanent solution because as good as purging feels, I really hate having to devote an entire day (or even several days) to the process 😦

          • Cathy Lynn Brooks

            I have a garbage bag on the go at all times so I can find things I don’t want and have a full bag ready for the charity that comes around periodically to collect used items.

            • Kat Richter

              Huh! I like that idea. Half the time remembering to get the piles of reject stuff OUT is harder than actually going through everything.

  1. Ann St. Vincent

    I think the idea of that class is brilliant and I can see how many “teachable moments” it provides. I’ve experienced first hand just how much stuff I have that I don’t need with my divorce and being in my own place with only my own stuff. It becomes obvious when you don’t use something when it’s sat in exactly the same place for 2 years now.

    I’ve blogged about my closet purges and while I definitely have too many “yoga” clothes, in an attempt to have a more reasonable amount of stuff and also to practice what all of my Mennonite family and ancestors would expect, I’m slowly working on being more mindful of the things I purchase. Borrowing a friends panini maker instead of buying one that I will use once a year. Not needing another pair of cute ballet flats (I found a storage bag full of shoes that I forgot about all last summer and never missed them… if that’s not a sign, what is?)

    I may have to come back and read this post a few times to keep remembering 🙂

    • Kat Richter

      Good for you! It’s hard to get rid of stuff that you might “someday” use (which is why I think so many of us make multiple unsuccessful closet purges). I have a Quaker friend who made herself a deal that she was going to be only wear/buy clothes that were gray because after multiple closet purges she was still accumulating more stuff than she wanted to. I liked the idea of giving yourself a restriction to curb spending/accumulation but I could never go all gray… Thank goodness I’m a 21st century Quaker and not one living a few hundred years ago 🙂

  2. Debbie

    Do you know of any websites that offers resources on best places to shop where they don’t allow those deplorable working conditions?

    • Kat Richter

      You know I’ve been trying to put together a list of resources for my students but it’s really difficult to figure out where to go because many of the large chain stores are now trying to do better but because they outsource so much of their work and often go through third party brokers, they themselves don’t know who is doing what. I do have a few links tho- am away from my desk at the moment but I’ll post them when I get a chance.

    • Kat Richter

      Yes, I actually read that in the car a few days ago and was trying to recall the link so I could post it here- thanks! It’s definitely a great video (not very uplifting but that’s reality). The Huff Post article isn’t very uplifting either but makes some great points. I’m not sure what the answer is but just like with alternative energy, I don’t think there is any one solution. It’s going to have to be a combination of new initiatives.

  3. Lady Grey

    What a fantastic teacher you are. Those students are lucky to be challenged by a professor like you – one that encourages them to think for themselves and search for the truth!! *glancing nervously at piles of black capris and colored tshirts* Purge coming on soon. Thanks for the nudge! Love, Lady Grey

    • Kat Richter

      Haha! Well, they don’t always appreciate it but thank you– I think some of them start to tune in at least. And don’t be too hard on yourself– if it makes you feel any better, I realized I had four pairs of white linen or linen-like pants when I started cleaning, most of which were too wrinkled to wear or stained. Plus as a fellow performer, I’m sure you also suffer from this-could-be-a-costume-someday-syndrome 🙂

  4. muscari

    That is a nice exercise. I share the same views. In fact I have been writing about sustainability and ethical fashion. This post was indeed in a different light and I enjoyed reading it.

  5. Heather

    looking forward to your kondo post. i’ve seen several people recommend it, and am debating it myself. much to hubby’s chagrin!

  6. no longer her landlord

    Wonderful! Putting this on my list for after the busy season is over, what better way to embrace the fall season! I’m looking forward to reading/watching the info about the purging process. I too, go back and forth, trying in vain to find ethical sources for retail. I’ve actually contacted Target a few times to get source information on a product and they effectively “greenwash” their answers. This site does do a fairly decent job of compiling sustainable sources, but it is by no means a complete list: http://www.greenpages.org/classified/ (they rely on subscriptions and donations)

    • Kat Richter

      Cool, thanks for sharing! I have a feeling Target and pretty much all the big box stores are equally guilty 😦

  7. trulyunplugged

    You are just so entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time…thanks for this education–and for the photo of the gentleman in the summer attiyah (I imagine his name is Langdon Fairchild The Third, and that he’s a southerner, through and through (whatever that means)) 🙂

  8. datingandotherstories

    Nice piece. I sometimes get overwhelmed when I think about all of the stuff I have acquired and sometimes wonder if it is really making me happier, or just taking more of my time to keep track of it all. Maybe it is a hereditary thing…I did in fact recently get into an argument with my mother helping her move homes and she refused to throw out out instruction manuals…because you know – we all need tv instruction manuals from the 1990s right?


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