Garments in our Global Economy

Food. Clothing. Shelter. Three essential human needs. There has been a lot of discussion lately about food sources and commercial agriculture versus local, sustainable or organic. And shelter discussions can be about how green your lily pad is or homeless all the way to mansions of the rich and famous. But what about clothing?

We go to local shops, malls, big box stores, online to find our clothes. We want clothing that is fashionable, wearable, comfortable and easy to care for. And we don’t want to have to pay a lot for it.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy clothes. Not only are they, well, necessary, but they are fun! And I am certainly guilty of having a closet full of “outsourced” clothing… as we will see. But it worries me: where is clothing made and under what conditions? How is this clothing manufacture outsourcing affecting our economy? Global trade is most definitely here to stay, but I can’t help but wonder about the people who make my pants. Who are they?

Global garment factories

In 2008, Kelsey Timmerman published a book, Where am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes. I intend to get my hands on that book and explore this more. In the meantime, this blog has a few excerpts from his research: Essentially, corporate clothing companies have outsourced manufacturing to countries where garment workers earn very little and work very hard to make the clothing that we simply pick off the racks and pay the least we can for.

Are these, in fact, sweatshops? What are the conditions really like? I started with a look through the eyes of, a non-profit focused on international labor rights. They reminded me of our sweatshop history, where one hundred years ago, women worked and died in horrible conditions at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That day contributed to positive changes in labor, and that legacy has continued through to today in the form of unions. Unfortunately, out of sight is out of mind. What really happens at the factories overseas? Are they happy, cared for employees? My gut says no. And the idea that conditions where people make my clothes are as bad as or worse than the girls at Triangle makes me ill.

Just recently, in December of 2010, 24 garment workers were killed in a fire in Bangladesh, and 800 Cambodian workers were fired because of a strike looking for better working conditions and a salary higher than $53 a month. And in Uzbekistan, forced child labor gives us the cotton for our baby’s clothes.  (Carter’s brand will not reveal whether it sources cotton from Uzbekistan).

So do I go naked?

Of course, we do not want to support the exploitation of women and children that make garments in our global economy. But what can we do? The consumer voice must be strong enough to stop this economic engine – which means Walmart, Target, mall stores and other retailers must get the message that we won’t buy clothes not made under fair working conditions. Realistic? Hardly. Even if consumers were made more aware of these conditions, I don’t think they would stop shopping at Old Navy. Sad, but unfortunately true. However, if you are an individual that cares about this issue, you can locate clothing sources that are local or fair trade and you can make your own individual protest against sweatshops. I know I will. I just don’t think it will make a difference to the exploited in China, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Mexico or countless other countries where US manufacturers can pay less for product production in order to earn a higher profit state side. For now, I will focus on buying Fair Trade clothing, and fight the fight against sweatshops.


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