I don’t do anything for the hundreds of Seattle homeless living under I-5 or the one napping on a worn-out cardboard box next to Rhein Haus, where six bucks gets me a disappointing IPA….I take forty bucks out of my checking account and a new sweater appears in my closet. –Josh de Lacy, “I’m scared she gonna die”
I’m sick over the poisoned water in Flint, the segregation in Champaign, and the huddled masses with no home to return to—but what have I done about any of it, really? –-Sabrina Lee, “Imposter Syndrome”
Like my fellow Post Calviners Josh and Sabrina, I feel a lot of guilt. I feel guilty for my white privilege, my socioeconomic status, my American passport. I, like Josh, sometimes come face-to-face with those who need something, and I don’t do anything. More often I think about those not in my immediate vicinity and my thoughts echo Sabrina’s, full of pity but very little action.
Most days, I actually wear this guilt on my back.
Made in China, my shirt says. My pants are from Thailand.
But where do our clothes actually come from? Before they get to the mall or the boutique or the bargain bin, before we buy them for their comfort, style, or perceived necessity in our wardrobe. Sure, the tag lists a country, but what does that really mean? Who are the people who make them? What are their working conditions like? Are they paid a living wage?
In this modern age, I have a fair amount of this information at my fingertips, and the answers aren’t pretty. Tragedies like the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh that killed 1,134 people are enough to make me boycott stores like The Gap and H&M.
But my closet tells a different story.
Every once in awhile, I’ll read a story about child labor or abysmal working conditions or meager pay and it will get my dander up enough that I take my liberal arts education to the internet to do some good hard research into how I can stop being part of the problem and start being a part of the solution. I make a conscious decision to be an informed consumer, to put my money where my little idealist heart is.
But then I see the price of a fairly-traded-organic-cotton-sewn-with-love-and-health-benefits t-shirt and my West Michigan, let-me-brag-about-the-sale-I-found blood starts to boil.
The companies that tout their fair labor practices and eco-friendly production standards often charge more than I’m used to, more than my rational brain is comfortable with, because my brain knows I can get a shirt that looks the same for half the price at any of a multitude of stores. My hearts whimpers out “but the PEOPLE!” and my brain squashes it with the ever-present hammer of practicality. It simply isn’t practical for me to spend that much money on new clothes. It’s a waste of my God-given resources to make such an investment in something I don’t really need. Sure, I might not need the shirt from Target either, but it was only five bucks, how could I resist?!
But the guilt remains. Sometimes it hits me while I’m still in the store, and I’ll quietly put back the dress that flatters my figure and is in my price range because I know it should cost more. Other times, I talk myself into buying it, saying Once I graduate, Once I’m a real adult, Once I get married, Once our student loans are paid off. Putting off the responsibility I feel to my fellow human beings, setting aside my ethics for a good deal. How often does my frugality reinforce systems of injustice I purportedly stand against? Too often, I know. So often, it’s tempting not to care. More than tempting, most days.
But most days I don’t go shopping. Most days, I just have to wear my clothes. And if my clothes cost more, I’ll have to go shopping less and buy fewer things. And you know what? That will be okay. When money’s tight, I’ll shop secondhand. I know not everyone has these choices, but I do. And I’m ready to make a better choice.
Catherine Kramer (’14) has a degree in English and works in publishing. Her continued existence is made possible by grace, warm hugs, and iced chai lattes.