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.