-In what seems strange to call good news, it appears that most of the response to the Bangladesh factory collapse is not conflation of poor labor conditions with shoddy workmanship that our sort would never stand for. Yes, we should be aware of the connection between the clothing we wear and the clothing found in the rubble - i.e. that these factories produce our clothes. It leads to outrage, and - apparently! - to sensible articles in the mainstream press about what's to be done. But I'm pleased to see that this conversation hasn't gone the let's-change-how-we-shop route, a route that tends to take attention away from things that would actually prevent such tragedies in the future, and to direct it towards unrelated and relatively petty concerns, namely that clothing these days isn't stitched together as artisanally as it once was.
And in any case, voting with our dollars-or-euros-or-pounds probably won't do much, especially considering what that tends to mean, namely going with a store that happened not to be in this latest news report, but that in all probability sources its clothing the same way. Like, if you read that the Gap is bad, you might go to Zara instead, or vice versa. But if - categorical imperative-style - everybody did as "we" are supposed to and bought only second-hand or ethically-certified local-sustainable you-pay-a-bit-more-but-you-get-to-feel-good-about-yourself clothes, or not shopping, period, would that be the answer? It would effectively shut down garment industries abroad. And certain such industries might need to shut down temporarily - must companies leave Bangladesh? perhaps for a time - but if "we" treated this shift as a kind of lifestyle change and not a boycott until various issues were properly addressed, then yes, that would be not so wonderful for workers abroad. And this gets to bigger questions re: "local" - we do need to consider that there will be consequences for workers abroad if we decide that everything must be produced domestically.
And... today's running podcast was Elizabeth Cline on Fresh Air. On the supply end, she knows so much more than the rest of us, having actually gone to China and Bangladesh and done some impressive-sounding (something for the to-read list, the author herself having redeemed my sense of what the book would be about) research. As for demand, Cline says that she herself now shops far more ethically than she once did, and cites her outfit the day of the interview - which includes a pair of high-end, U.S.-made jeans. Cline argues that we should care more about garment quality - which fabrics, and how they're stitched together - and that our indifference to this explains how we come to have cheaply-made clothing in the first place.
And this is where she loses me. We're under an ethical obligation not to consume clothing produced in terrible conditions (albeit not at the level of individual consumers, see paragraphs above), but we're not at all under an ethical obligation to care if our clothing looks nice. This isn't like with food, where you're eating more healthily if you're not eating junk. What are the ethical consequences of wearing a badly-fitting t-shirt?
The problem, then, is almost that Westerners/Americans aren't materialistic enough. We don't fetishize our clothing. We've decided we have better things to think about. Which was really how I thought about it when Cline was lamenting the fact that her own mother never taught her how to sew. And I'm thinking, let's say she had. And let's say women were still expected to do all sorts of domestic chores themselves, at home. Would Cline have gone on to write this fascinating-sounding, internationally-researched book?
-I now can't wait to read Alison Pearlman's new book about food culture. From L. V. Anderson's review:
The food movement ran into trouble when it began insisting that good taste was also capital-G good: Food that is good for the environment, for animals, for workers, for community-building, and for health will also taste the best. The argument is seductive but specious—what tastes good to one person won’t taste good to another—and dangerous. In the final section of her book, Pearlman notes that food-focused publications have increasingly covered issues related to environmentalism, labor, and politics over the last decade—but only “as problems to be solved not by collective political action but by individual shopping choices—in other words, consumption.” If consumption is virtuous, only those with the economic means to consume discriminately can have virtue. Which is how restaurant menus became infected with the elite farm brand-names and modernist amuse-bouches that proclaim how much less accessible they are than the food of the masses. The less accessible, the better.This this this this this, and also, this.