Why should I pay more than $10 for a t-shirt?

So a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh on Wednesday. I saw the story, it made me really sad, I posted it on twitter. Later I saw this post on facebook from my friend Rob:

Come and mourn with me awhile…a tragedy far greater than Boston. A greater loss of life – the racism and classism that will cause this event to pass from our minds like a fleeting breeze – the reality that we are all complicit in and bear guilt for this event. We will not chase down the people responsible for this tragedy…this terrorist act…because they’re too well protected. They are us. They are protected behind arguments about “the way things are”, behind cheap statements about the “direct responsibility” of the indigenes managing the factory, behind worthless defenses about how “$37 a month is better than $0 a month”. 70 lives have been lost today because we want cheap t-shirts more than we want our brothers and sisters to thrive. Maranatha.

Damn, I thought; he’s right. I posted that story on twitter, it made me sad and angry, but that’s where I left it. Honestly, I might not have thought about it again if it weren’t for my friend calling us out on it: Racism. Classism. Ugh.

The situation became ridiculously poignant when I did lectio divina with Mark 8:34-38. Jesus asked the crowd:

“For what benefit is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his life?”

Isn’t that precisely what we’ve done? By proxy, through our multinational corporations, we’ve gained the whole world. We can outsource our labor from literally anywhere on the planet. We put out an RFP and give the job to the lowest bidder. “Don’t tell me how you do it,” we tell them, “just get me these shirts at this price.” Why? So that we can pay less than $10 for a t-shirt and those corporations can still make a huge profit.

And in so doing, we have forfeited our life. Specifically, we have literally forfeited the lives of at least 340 Bangladeshi sisters and brothers, people who bear the image of their Creator just like I do. As Father Richard Rohr writes:

Every single person on earth is just as much children of God as we are. Objectively. Theologically. Eternally. Where else do we think they came from? Did some other god create them, except THE GOD? Their divine DNA is the same as ours. We deny our monotheism if we believe anything else.

Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing Jesus was talking about? We have forfeited what is most important in exchange for profit and cheap shirts.

Yes, my friend is right, we should mourn this. And we should not only mourn; let this mourning lead to action! Let us demand that the companies we give our money to get so diligent about auditing their supply chains that people become more important to them than the product itself and the profit it brings. Crazy, right? It’s crazy of me to think that companies could decide that people working in safe conditions and making a living wage is more important than the almighty dollar.

But isn’t that how the market works? Don’t those corporations always say, “we’re just giving people what they want”? I happen to think that most of the time that’s not actually true, that if people really knew the entirety of what they’re buying (like a collapsed factory in Bangladesh), they would realize they don’t actually want that. But I digress… if the companies claim to do what their customers want, then we, the customers, need to vote with our voice and our dollar. Let’s tell them we care about people first, before product. Wondering where to start?

  • Free 2 Work rates companies on how well they’re addressing modern-day slavery. I’ve consulted their iPhone app before making purchases.
  • Slavery Footprint interactively reveals how many slaves work for you.
  • Made In a Free World produces “innovative campaigns, front line projects, consumer engagement tools, and marketable business solutions to get slavery out of our system.” They’ll help businesses move beyond compliance to engagement.
  • Since not all companies have web pages dedicated to corporate responsibility, sometimes you just have to ask. Look up contact info and write a quick email asking how they ensure the folks that work for them are taken care of. I can usually tell right away from the response whether social responsibility is on their radar.
  • For those who want to dig in a bit deeper, Patagonia has compiled a list of books and resources on corporate responsibility.

These are only starting points, focused on making better consumer choices. There are all sorts of creative ways to work for the flourishing of all people. I welcome your ideas in the comments.

As we mourn the passing of our neighbors and pray for the rescue of those still trapped in the rubble, I also pray that this death will bring about new life. May we be awakened (or re-awakened) to take responsibility for the impact of our choices and the way we use our voices. May we celebrate every small step we see anyone taking to be more considerate of their impact upon the world we share and the people who live on it. And may we not give in to despair, thinking that our efforts cannot possibly make a difference. They do.

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4 thoughts on “Why should I pay more than $10 for a t-shirt?

  1. Rose

    Kevin,

    Amen.

    …..

    But, I want to push this a bit more. I want to specifically respond to your hope: “I happen to think that most of the time that’s not actually true, that if people really knew the entirety of what they’re buying (like a collapsed factory in Bangladesh), they would realize they don’t actually want that.”

    One of my fellow writing consultants recently shared with me a story he uses in his class to talk with his students about the hidden structures on which our societies of comfort are built. It’s called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” [Here, I think, is a link to a pdf of it: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/dunnweb/rprnts.omelas.pdf.%5D A brief summary of the story: Omelas is introduced as a paradisiacal city, where everyone is happy and content. Life is perfect for all who live there. But somewhere below the foundations of the city, there is a child who is confined, abused, neglected. The happiness of the city would be impossible without that one child’s misery. When each inhabitant comes of age, they are brought to see the child. At first they are shocked, but eventually, most manage to rationalize the child’s existence in perpetual suffering for the sake of so many others’ happiness. Their knowledge of the child’s misery makes their lives – their efforts to live beautifully and wholly – more poignant, they think. However, there are a few individuals who, when they learn of the child, choose to walk away from Omelas. The story ends with the narrator reflecting that s/he doesn’t know where those individuals go, that perhaps where they are going doesn’t even exist.

    When he teaches the story, Josh, my co-worker, asks his students to seriously reflect on whether or not they would, to live in paradise forever, kick the child just once, if that’s all it took. Most of them all express their repulsion at such a thought, but one of his students was candid. “Yeah, I’d kick the child,” he wrote. “Of course I would. To live forever happily? Yes.”

    And it makes me think — if people really knew about the atrocities that enable their lives of comfort and pleasure, would they really change anything, given the choice? The scary thing is that not everyone would. Perhaps the majority of people wouldn’t. Even when people are made aware of how it is that they can buy a shirt for 10 dollars or a pair of shoes for 30, they still buy the shirt and the shoes. Knowledge isn’t enough, it seems.

    It’s a horrible thought that all these people are just okay with others’ oppression for their own sake. But don’t we all kick the child every day? Like Omelas, our capitalistic society is built upon injustice, others’ oppression, isn’t it? As you point out, the comforts and conveniences we enjoy are often reliant upon others’ suffering.

    But what is it going to take to change that – to change the way individuals operate?

    I’m not sure.

    Your post here and the story of Omelas make me really question human nature. What will it take for us to not choose comfort or convenience? Have we been so fully indoctrinated – by what, I don’t know – to respond with apathy to the wrongs that enable our happy existence?

    It reminds me, too, of Marx’s belief in the inevitable rising of the proletariat – a classless class, as he thought of it. He was so confident that a group of people – the marginalized – would band together and abolish capitalistic, classist society in order to make something new. The other issues with that idea aside, it strikes me that Marx failed to anticipate that people wouldn’t act in the best interest of others, but would instead act primarily in their own interest. Many attribute the failure of the proletariat to the ability of capitalism to absorb resistance to it, as someone else put it, but I wonder what it suggests about human nature as well?

    It’s unsettling.

    Reply

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