You might have noticed that I took a break from blogging after my stint in California over the holidays. I needed to unwind a bit, so I spent about a week on “staycation” here in New York, engaged in two of my favorite winter sports: reading and knitting. Today I’ll tell you about the reading.
I started a few books I picked up on the third floor of the Mid-Manhattan Public Library (pictured above), but I found this Harper’s article, “Shopping for Sweat” by Ken Silverstein, particularly interesting. It’s only available to subscribers on the site, but the January 2010 issue, where it appears, is still on the stands.
In the story, Silverstein illustrates that despite Cambodia’s growing garment industry and reputation as a “sweat-free” clothing producer (thanks in part to a 1999 bilateral trade agreement that favored Cambodian garments for import into the U.S. provided factories met international standards), the country’s factory workers are still sweating for about 33 cents per hour.
The writer attacked Nicholas Kristof’s assertion that sweatshops provide an escape from poverty, or at least an alternative to scaling a garbage dump, comparing Kristof to those who defended child labor in America in the early 1900s. Interesting, and great to see two serious thinkers engaged in this conversation. (And fun, when Silverstein describes Kristof’s “trademark tone of a den mother addressing a troop of Brownies,” and footnotes that the columnist regularly earns approximately $30,000 per hour to publicly address global poverty.)
The point most seem to agree on is that it doesn’t really matter what governments or NGOs do to improve factory conditions–as long as clothing companies demand garments at a certain price, factories will find a way to deliver, especially in this economy. And that’s likely to get worse as the American demand for cheap goods rises in the recession. Silverstein cited the same New York Times story about Chinese production that I did a few months back, where the head of trade at a southern China-based jeans factory said that American buyers “offer $2.85 per pair of jeans for a package of a dozen, when the reasonable price is $7.”
So how can consumers who don’t like the idea of cheap clothing at some greater human cost start to tell brands (Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, and H&M all appear in the piece) they might pay more for a tee-shirt made by a fairly-paid worker? Boycott? Write letters? Support pricier products? I’m not sure. I’m still working on this, as I wonder what to wear.
I also read Vogue.