Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Conscientious Consumption in the Age of Skinny Jeans

Eight years ago, I could have fit into a pair of skinny jeans, though I wouldn't have tried. I was too self conscious for such form-fitting clothes. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a hater. It's a fine trend and if you can make the skinny look work, I say go for it! If I could today, I would.

Alas, my body is not best displayed in flesh-clinging pants, which is a shame, because this fad has taken over the universe. I can't recall a fashion craze that ever made me feel so inadequate about my wardrobe. I currently own two pairs of jeans - the very comfortable baggy pair that make my butt look weird, and the more shapely, but not quite long enough pair that displays my belly a bit too... candidly. A few months ago, I didn't care, but both pairs of jeans are so far from the skinny trend that I am constantly reminded not only of my girth, but also that I have dorky clothes.

I've been longing to visit The Gap or a Levi's purveyor, so I can shell out a ton of money for an easy fix to my problem. I've been studying my not-so-skinny peers and some of them have managed to find jeans that approximate the trend, without making them look like upside down Weeble Wobbles. I know the solution is out there. But, I've been broke. Yeah, I could have made clothing a bigger priority, but I spent my scraps of disposable income on road trips and a writing class. I've had loads of fun these last couple months, but those two ugly pairs of jeans are getting downright ratty.

So here comes payday, one of those two "extra" ones we get every year, and on the eve of a promising new decade, no less! I've budgeted my bills wisely and there's a little gravy on the horizon. I've been utterly impatient to replenish my closet, but then I did something that totally fouled up my plan. I read an article about Third World sweatshop workers.

You see, whenever I'm feeling sorry for broke-ass self, I like to read articles about Third World people so I remember how incredibly charmed my existence is. Harpers is my go-to resource in these situations. The January issue has an article called "Shopping for Sweat: The Human Price of a $2 T-shirt" and it focuses upon Cambodian apparel industry workers. I may as well say "Cambodian workers" because it's just about the only industry in that country. Anyway, these workers make an average of 33 cents an hour busting out tens of thousands of t-shirts annually. One factory makes boutique-quality t-shirts, at $2 a piece, for Aeropostale. Aeropostale turns around and sells those shirts for $30 -$35. Good grief, where do I even begin? I'll start with questions -

- Who spends $30 -$35 on a t-shirt?! Shoot me if I ever do that.

- Where do the other $28 - $33 per shirt go? Yeah, it helps pay for the retail space and the mall workers' wages and marketing. But what chunk of that pays their execs? I'm guessing it works out to be way more than 33 cents per hour.

Here are some interesting tidbits I learned

- On average, Cambodian workers make way less than Chinese workers. Chinese laborers earn between 55 and 80 cents per hour. "Made in China" has such negative connotations, but after reading this article, I would feel a lot better buying a product with that tag instead of "Made in Cambodia" or "Made in Pakistan" or "Made in Sri Lanka"

- The article also states that "Few Cambodians have supervisory roles in local plants... foreigners account for 84 percent of production planners, 56 percent of work study engineers, and 54 percent of line supervisors at Cambodian factories."

- Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Cambodian apparel workers are young women.

So how is a young Cambodian lady to work herself out of the shack that she most likely shares with two or three other people? Some argue that sweatshop labor is a necessary stage in a nation's economic development (which implies a better future, perhaps not for the ladies themselves, but for their offspring). Others simply argue that these jobs are better than no jobs, and "no jobs" is the only alternative. Of course, the selfish and convenience-thirsting part of me wants to believe that I'm actually helping Third World workers by buying a pair of Levi's, but my intuition keeps tugging at my conscience.

I decided to consult the most conscientious consumer I ever met, my husband. Dan is the only person I know who shops online for union-made underwear and who also has an ethical stance on gasoline purchases (the purely South American-sourced Citgo is, after all, the most local choice). He is also a seasoned union organizer and generally knowledgeable about labor issues. Knowing that there is no simple answer for the conscientious clothing consumer, I asked him what his best choice is. His reply, as I expected, was "pay more for American union-made clothes."

But say everyone in this country decided to do that instead of buying $35 Aeropostale shirts - wouldn't that put the Third World worker out of a job? Obviously the answer is "yes," but we also know that isn't going to happen. Dan's point is that the sweatshop economy just isn't sustainable. "What usually ends up happening is that Third World workers get excited at first because there are jobs. Then after a year, they start realizing that the jobs aren't that great, and then they start to form unions. Once foreign buyers get a whiff of that, they pull out because they don't want to pay more, and they search for new sources of cheap labor." I suppose the model keeps working for the foreign buyer (that would be us) as long as there are untapped populations of desperate people. So in a purely cynical sense, it can work for us First Worlders for a good long time. But can we really fool ourselves that this source of underpaid work is really benefiting Third World people? Doesn't sound like it to me. At least, the argument isn't strong enough to make those Gap jeans seem like some great offering.

As for the idea that sweatshop labor is a necessary stepping-stone to prosperity, that smacks too much of "how can we survive without slavery?". Sickening.

On the other hand, I can see that this moment of reckoning is the next phase of my development as a conscientious consumer. Considering my general political beliefs and who my spouse is, it's long overdue. I've been conscious of sweatshop politics for years, and I cringe when I read "Made in (insert impoverished nation)" labels, which is probably why I so often chose to ignore those labels. Dan has been a strong influence on me. When we buy something together, we tend to buy it American-made. Our food choices are always as local as possible. But for me, clothing is that one last big hurdle.

So here's my plan -

- Continue getting the bulk of my clothing second-hand. This is a solid ethical and economic choice. It's less wasteful and it supports a local business (the thrift store). I will probably end up buying clothes that were once made in a sweatshop, but I can live with that if I am reusing something that someone else tossed away.

- Buy all the new stuff union made. I'm gonna try my best.

I think this combination is financially viable. I also like it because now I have a good reason for not wearing cutting-edge trends. The truth is that, compared to all the other things in my life (food, writing, travel, my family), I just don't care about fashion that much anymore. And besides, I figure this skinny jeans thing is bound to be the next stone-washed of dated clothes.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Postcard from My Favorite Living Writer

I recently wrote a fan letter to Louis Auchincloss, my favorite living writer. Guess what? He wrote me back! This was an auspicious start to the holiday season, indeed!

Let me tell you a bit about this writer that you never heard of. Louis Auchincloss is 92 years old. He has written 31 novels, 17 short story collections, and 17 non-fiction books, but for most of his adult life, writing wasn't his day job. He was a wills and trusts attorney until he was about 70 years old.

My therapist first turned me onto Auchincloss after I told him how much I enjoyed the writings of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. I also mentioned that I was sad to be running out of material, as I was rapidly gobbling up their work. He handed me a pile of Auchincloss novels and I've been chipping away ever since.

Auchincloss is a lot like Wharton, focusing on that same lofty class of New Yorkers, but about 50-75 years later. His characters tend to be as wholly imprisoned by the conventions of their limited society, but modernity makes it easier for them to eke out a bit more joy.

Auchincloss grew up in that society. He attended the Groton School (the Roosevelts's prep school of choice) and Yale. He comes from several generations of wealth. He's quite familiar with the crowd of white guys who run the world. I love his writing, because he helps me understand those guys by way of beautiful, subtle, and often heartbreaking character studies.

At the same time, Auchincloss is really good at understanding individuals that would seem alien to him. In my letter, I told him (and pardon me for quoting myself, but I don't think I could express it better than I did in the letter) "I think that the quality in your writing that I most admire and wish to emulate is your remarkable perspective. You and I come from very different worlds, and yet I can relate to so many of your characters. The most stunning example for me was Harry Reilly from 'The Mavericks'. Like Harry, I come from a large, working class, Irish-Catholic family, with an awful father. But what really struck me was when you said that Harry would have been more successful in his job if he hadn't been so sensitive to real or imagined condescension. I remember my shock in reading that line, because I felt like I was reading about myself!" Truly, Harry Reilly might be my all-time favorite protagonist, not just because his major shortcoming happens to be one of mine, but because he is also inspired to overcome it.

I also told him about another of his characters who helped me overcome a fear - my timidity in hanging out with my siblings again. In his story, "The Anniversary," a middle aged minister is uneasy about attending the party celebrating the 25th anniversary of his marriage. Through flashbacks, we learn that early in their marriage, the minister's wife left him and their two children to run off with another man. She returns a couple years later, tells her estranged husband and children that she wants to come back, though she understands they may not want her. The children eventually warm to her again, and so does the minister. She becomes an excellent wife and mother.

Understandably, the minister has a lot of weird and unresolved feelings about her having abandoned them. But I loved the wife because she helped me figure out how to approach my family. I wrote to Auchincloss, "the estranged wife in your story was my model. I loved her unassuming and frank manner, the way she refused to force a reconciliation, but let others decide if they would accept her. Reading that story helped me to build my confidence and face my family without fear. And I was fine." Herry Reilly helped me know myself better, but she helped me to be a better person.

I said a lot of other things in the letter (not just about myself). The main reason I wrote it is that I feel it's important to let others - artists, especially - know when they've done well. Whether that person writes or acts or sings karaoke, I try to let him or her knew when they've rocked out, so that they'll keep doing a great job. I guess this thing called "encouragement" seems pretty obvious, but we humans don't offer it to each other enough. Too often, we let our admiration turn to jealousy. I don't know any more filthy-feeling emotion than jealousy, so I'd much rather replace it with sight of someone's smile when I tell them how much I enjoyed their work.

The note I received from Mr. Auchincloss was like I smile I could carry in my pocket. I hoped he would write me back, but I didn't expect it. I found his postcard in my mailbox the day after Thanksgiving. The little kid handwriting threw me at first, but then I saw his signature and I admit, I squealed. He thanked me for my very sympathetic and understanding letter and said, "It set me up - at 92! Bless you for writing it".

I've been carrying that postcard in my book bag every day since. I don't really need anything else for Christmas.