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What If My Clothing Purchases Are Contributing to Someone Else's Poverty?

Let's say you had a friend who always had the cutest, most stylish clothes, yet you knew was on a tight budget.  One day you asked her how she does it.

"It's the best thing ever!" your friend gushes.  "I have my very own tailor straight from Bangladesh!  We set up his own work space in our walk-in closet, so he can make the clothes and hang them right up.  And guess what?  We only have to pay him three dollars a day!  You totally have to get your own tailor. Mine says his 14-year-old daughter is almost as good as he is....do you want me to contact her for you?"

Um.  Maybe you would need a new friend.

So the idea of having your own personal tailoring slave in your closet might not sound very appealing.  (Let's hope not.)  So why then are we not more disturbed when we hear about the conditions under which most of our clothing is made?

Lately, I've been noticing clothing labels.

Almost all the labels say Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, or India.  All countries known for their cheap labor.  And I wonder what's happening on the other side of the world to bring me my affordable clothing.

You've probably heard some of the stories.  About the clothing factory that collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, killing over 1000 tailors who were making American clothes.  Or maybe you've heard of this new documentary about clothing workers in India who get paid three dollars a day for over 12 hours of work.  Or the Chinese tailors who get paid $100-$200 a month.

And that's only one of the problems associated with clothing in the United States.  The other is that we Americans buy way more clothes than we ever need.  So that means that every year, thousands of tons of clothes are given to charity.  Know what happens to those clothes?

Less than 10% are actually re-sold.  Another big percentage is made into rags.  And over a quarter are stuffed into bales, shipped, and sold (at a profit) to markets in Africa.  Our family has become quite adept at shopping in these markets.  But even this is not a solution.

The massive influx of used clothing into Africa has caused the near-collapse of local fabric production. So much so that many African countries, including Tanzania, have pledged to stop these imports by 2019.  And what is the United States' response?  That these countries are "imposing significant economic hardship on the USA's used clothing industry" and thus may receive trade consequences.

So not only does the United States source most of their clothes on near-slave labor, we punish the countries who refuse to buy our cast-offs.  

It's one thing to hear about poverty in the world and know that there's nothing we can do about it.  But what if we are directly contributing to it?  What if we actually are buying clothes that are made by slaves?  What if our cast-offs are just increasing the world's poverty?  Should we care?  Will God hold us responsible?

On one hand, there doesn't have to be anything immoral about being wealthy.  On the other hand, what if the abundance of our possessions is directly related to the poverty of the rest of the world?  What if having our closets full means that others will have to dress their children in rags?

Maybe I'm being over-dramatic. This is deeply disturbing to me, but I don't know what to do about it.  Buying only name-brand, expensive clothes is not a solution, since even those manufacturers make their clothes overseas.  Boycotting clothes made in developing countries is not a solution, since much of their economy depends on the clothing industry.  The truth is those tailors need jobs--but they need to be paid far wages and have good working conditions.  How can we, the consumers, make that happen?

In Tanzania, one of my favorite clothing options is buying local fabric and taking it to one of the many tailors I know.  But that's not usually an option in industrialized countries, and I buy many other clothes in the traditional way as well.

Grace trying on a dress in our tailor's shop.

And really, clothing is just the tip of the iceberg.  Shoes, handbags, toys, electronics--all of these things are produced overseas, sold in America, and then shipped back overseas when Americans don't want them anymore.  We see these things in Tanzanian markets all the time.  

The question that most haunts me is this: If there was a way to make the world's economy more fair, am I ready to make the sacrifices that would require?   Have I come to grips with the fact that I can't have my cake and eat it too?   If there was a way to pressure the clothing industry to become fair-trade, are I ready to pay significantly higher prices for my clothing?  Am I ready to live with less so that I don't produce as much waste?   

It's easy to put my head in the sand so that I don't have to feel the weight of the world's poverty.  But to whom much has been given, much will be required.  What does God require of me?

Are there solutions?  Do you have ideas?  Can we have a discussion about this?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

Also, if you want to recommend a great fair-trade clothing company, leave their website in the comments either here or on Facebook.

Here's two from Tanzania to get you started:

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