A look at my wardrobe in light of Bangladesh building collapse

The lower rod of my closet currently holds forty-two light-weight jackets, sweaters, and blouses. I like choice: dressy, casual, grubby, something for those times when I feel blah, something else if I’m in the mood for pizzazz. Given the popularity of walk-in closets I doubt that my desire for variety is all that rare among middle-class women.

The recent collapse of the clothing factory in Bangladesh has caused me to think about my wardrobe. Employees who earn less than $40 a month (no, I didn’t mistakenly omit any zeros) saw cracks in the structure but were ordered to keep sewing. After all, we American women are anticipating new summer selections. As of April 29, the death count is more than 380. The building collapse, along with a factory fire that killed 112 a few months ago, is putting pressure on big retailers to demand safer conditions and pay higher labor costs.

Maybe the pressure should instead be on me, the consumer. How many tops, how many pairs of jeans, how many pairs of shoes do I really need? In Korea and several European countries, I’ve noticed that what mannequins wear in store windows is expensive by my standards. Yet women still manage to appear smartly dressed. They own fewer but better quality clothes.

It’s largely the American demand for inexpensive clothing and other consumer goods that has sent jobs abroad. We want to earn a living wage, pay little for a lot of stuff, and have jobs stay here. Is that possible?

I’ve considered sewing my own clothes, as I used to do. Too time consuming. I could call a moratorium on purchases altogether. Or I could keep my money in the community by buying what a local person produces, that is have fewer but more distinctive garments.

But the issue isn’t that simple. A few years ago a visitor from Nicaragua wanted me to take her shopping for clothes. She bought dresses made in Central America because it helped employ women there. Columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has traveled extensively in developing countries, writes that for the severely impoverished, a job in a sweatshop would improve their lives (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/15/opinion/15kristof.html ).

I look at pictures of Bangladeshi futilely scratching at concrete to reach loved ones. I dare not conclude that because issues are complex there’s no need to change my consumption habits.

Reunions, politics, and a liberal arts education, OR how I came to respect Republican classmates

I didn’t particularly want to attend the fifty-year reunion of my college class. I’d have to compete with truckers for an eight-by-fifteen foot space on Interstate 81. I would miss several mornings of doing the Chicago Tribune Sudoku while eating my bran cereal. Most distasteful of all, I’d have to spend thirty-six hours with Republicans.

I reasoned that those who live near an institution are more likely to attend events such as a reunion. Since Bridgewater College is located in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, far from liberal urban centers of the state, the majority of those in attendance would probably be Republicans. Could I help maintain the peace by not talking about politics? Sometimes I can’t help myself.

At issue was my identity, the woman I’ve become in these intervening years, the things I care about. I care about the poor having food, heat in the winter, medical resources. I care about water safety, air safety, product safety, gun safety. I care about the rights of LGBTQ members of our society. These concerns, often labeled liberal values, are at the core of who I’ve become. I doubted I could suppress my political leanings for a whole weekend.

But I attended the event. I mostly held my tongue, asked people about their vocations, how many kids and grandkids they have, things like that. I listened for clues indicating openness to issues I consider important. Then I’d say something like, “I blog some, mostly political, sort of on the liberal side.” So it was that in small clusters we touched on topics of dissension but tread gently, respectfully.

The class of 1963 turned out to be a reasonable group.

I have a few clues as to why. We received a liberal arts education; that is, no matter our major, we were required to study science, math, literature, the social sciences, religion, and history. Many of us took electives in art and music. A paper in nearly every course and debates about issues in the various fields forced us to think critically. In his reunion profile statement one former student mentioned a philosophy teacher who “influenced my current and strong Socratic thinking.” We also learned to respect others’ opinions.

My classmates have traveled widely: Thailand, Japan, Peru, European countries. Perhaps that too explains the reasonable nature of our conversations: an openness that accompanies viewing the rich histories of other lands, witnessing firsthand how people of other cultures thrive and/or struggle.

I left the reunion trusting that members of the class of ’63—some conservative, some liberal in their views—have brought critical thinking skills they learned in college to the political process. Yes, we are reasonable people who have reached different conclusions.

But then we didn’t try to solve any of the country’s problems.