Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A linen package, sealed with wax

When's the last time you got a package from Dharamsala? I received one this week. It was stitched into a linen pouch and sealed with red wax. As I collected it from our veranda on a chilly autumn morning, I thought I heard the whisper of Tibetan horns sounding through the Himalayas.

I've gone through a few shirts lately, and also a couple of pairs of pants; I am one of those rare women who wears her clothes out. When you have as few clothes as me, losing a few things means a bi-weekly washing cycle and regular dressing crises. So I trawled through the op shops, but didn't find anything; in any case, second hand leggings are icky. My options were to go to the nearest mall and buy an armful of stuff made in sweatshops, or try a little harder. The mall is what most of us do most of the time; and sometimes, when I'm frantic, I do too.

However, I try not to. For one, buying clothes made by someone in desperate conditions is hardly ethical. That someone is probably not Western, nor well paid, nor looked after in their workplace. That someone is almost certainly poor. But because that someone is so far away, so abstract an entity, we pretend they don't exist. We pretend that the clothes have dropped out of the sky, untouched by human hand until they landed on this clothes rack, here in front of us. Supporting this system holds people in a system of entrenched poverty and powerlessness that they cannot easily escape, and it's not a system I want to uphold.

I wonder if we'd change how we shopped if every item of clothing was tagged with a photograph of the worker who made it, with a description of their wages, the cost of living, their working conditions and their family situation. Could we still buy a $12 t-shirt if, attached to the label, was a photograph of a 15 year old Guatemalan girl named Maria: lives in a concrete bunkroom, sleeps on the floor with a dozen co-workers, works 12 to 14 hours a day, and hopes to save enough money for a bus ticket home so she can visit her mother, who is dying from poverty-related causes? Sewn from cotton grown by Ravi, who is sprayed with toxic chemicals on a regular basis and whose village water supply has been contaminated by industrialised agriculture? If it was personal, if we could attach a real person to the production of this t-shirt, these trousers, perhaps we'd investigate organically grown fabrics, and clothing made under fair trade guidelines.

I hear suggestions that such workers need to unionise and get themselves out of this mess, and certainly many workers are beginning to do just that. But millions aren't there yet; and rather than hold them down, I would prefer to be part of the solution, helping to create a market for fair wages and good workplaces.

I'm also not convinced that the way out of poverty is through charity. I'm looking for a more permanent solution. And I think that when people are paid fair wages for their labour; when they work in safe conditions; when they farm in non-toxic ways; when they belong to collectives that ensure their children go to school and have access to some medical care, then we are all participating in a system that is dignified, merciful and fair.

After all, we are degraded when our consumption exploits others; and as charitable donors, we can easily slip into self-righteousness. But if we make good decisions when we buy the stuff we need, we can become no more, and no less, than ethical consumers. At the other end of the arrangement, producers don't have to live and work in terrible conditions, nor do they have to endure our charity. Instead, they can become no more, and no less, than ethical farmers and manufacturers. We are all dignified by fair trade.

So instead of going to the mall, a few weeks ago I spent half an hour online and ordered some things from a workshop in Dharamsala. People of Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu faiths, many of them refugees, work there. The workshop provides skills training and supplementary education, and all workers, both male and female, have access to sick leave and maternity leave. The workshop is certified by an external body, so I feel assured that the conditions are fair. On my desk, I have a printed catalogue; it includes a photograph of the workers. Their workplace is an exception to an industry that is renowned for its ruthless brutality – it is no wonder so many of them are smiling.

And in the parcel that arrived today? Soft leggings, two shirts, and a gorgeous red scarf the colour of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's habit. Perhaps that's why, when I opened the door, I could hear the echoes of Tibetan horns calling from across the world.

Chunks of this blog first appeared in the article 'Looking Good' in Zadok Perspectives No. 104. I am reproducing it here because a few people have asked me to post a list of where I buy fair trade stuff; the list is here, or find it under the 'pages' headings.


  1. Another thought provoking post, Alison. I am clothed from op shops, but that still does not negate the reality that most of the items I buy were cut, pieced and sewn by workers who, no doubt, worked in substandard conditions. I only delay the inevitable of my chosen clothes becoming landfill. I try to buy natural fibres that, once beyond resurrection, can be put through our worm farm septic treatment plant thus further reducing how much waste we send to landfill.

  2. Yeah, I buy a lot (but not all) of our stuff from op shops - which leads to the ridiculous situation today that my undies cost $25, and my jeans $6! I use fair trade alternatives when I can't get to the op shop or can't find what we need; also for 'special'; and of course for underwear - but I do think it is worth spending the extra to buy some new stuff when I can afford it to help bring about change - and to enjoy a new shirt all to myself from time to time! al.

  3. I like that idea. I have never thought about researching online for fair trade clothing and jewellery. I am the same as you though, the smalls are all purchased new and just about everything else is second hand. I simply cannot stomach the thought of paying full retail for anything, even some of the so-called sale prices are galling.

    Thanks Alison!


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