Sunday, March 9, 2008

Blogging Blue Jeans

Things that can make me feel guilty are also the things that can inspire…

Have you ever pondered blue jeans? Usually when I think of jeans, I think of my boys; especially at young ages, they could easily wear through a pair of jeans before they outgrew them. I used to have two goals:

1. Locate jeans that fit. (I have boys with ultra-slim waists, so this isn’t always easy.)
2. Get them as inexpensively as possible.

But thanks to a friend, I’ve started to think about other topics…like who makes jeans and at what cost? A friend just loaned me a video, China Blue, detailing the world of blue jean manufacturing in China. Young Chinese—usually women—many as young as 13 or 14, leave their families in the country to go make money in city factories. They live in “factory housing” consisting of concrete, sparsely heated rooms, housing about 12 girls/room. Each girl has her own bed…but the beds aren’t used much because the girls routinely work 18 hour days with no overtime pay. They make about 6 cents/hour. Food is subtracted from their wages as are any “infractions” such as the penalty received for staying out late one night. (For this, the girls had to work two days without pay.)

In the scenario presented, the factory owner makes about $4 for a pair of jeans and then the foreign buyer charges about 10x that for the same pair. Leading U.S. jean labels were represented as buyers.

The documentary follows Jasmine, a teenage girl who is the second child from a poor family. As the second child, she is trying hard to earn money, knowing that her family has suffered from having a second child under China’s one-child policy. After two months of working without pay, she learns that new workers typically receive nothing for their first couple months of work. Having no earnings—not even the 6 cents/hour of her peers—she is forced to continue working at the factory even as others spend a month’s pay to travel home for New Year Celebrations.

Jasmine and others typically spend up to 18 hours a day at work in the factory. Her job is to cut threads from each pair of blue jeans. This job, which must be done to perfection, pays 3 cents/pair and demands 30 minutes for each pair of jeans.

The documentary explored the role of foreign buyers who typically overlook working conditions/pay in favor of the bottom line…how cheaply can I buy this so as to make more money when it’s sold at home? A couple of U.S. buyers are named, including one store (…”Gimme a W____!!!!”) that brought a grin to the Chinese factory owner’s face.

Yes, learning all this could make me feel guilty. But it also presents a challenge! Here are some ways I’m trying to meet the challenge:

1. Buy less. Consider need vs. want. My kids probably do need a pair of jeans. They probably don’t need more than a couple.

2. Look at the label. Where were these jeans manufactured? What are the chances that the location = substandard working conditions? If you have homeschool kids—or any kids for that matter—a great exercises is to go on a “global label hunt.” Ask your child to go through his closet and create a tally/graph for the number of clothing items from each country. What does this tell you about your purchases and the “cost” involved—your cost as well as the “cost” to the folks who are making the clothes? A "bargain" for me may mean that someone else "pays the price."

3. Consider used. Can you lengthen the life of a pair of jeans that someone else purchased new? Garage sales, used stores, and trading clothing with friends are all options. I routinely swap with a friend. My daughter’s clothes go to her younger girls. Her older son’s clothes go to my youngest son. It works out great for everyone!

4. Think about the industry. Their goal is to make money. To that end, workers in the country of origin are exploited. Millions of dollars are spent in advertising to convince you that you MUST HAVE whatever is new and in-style. They don’t want you to think. They want you to buy.

What other ways can we rise to this challenge?

A postscript...

Another adoptive parent emailed this to me:

China's Stolen Children

Last week, a British television network aired a controversial documentary titled China's Stolen Children. At one point, the Chinese government tried to block the British broadcast, according to The Sunday Times. The producers summarize the documentary this way: "The film follows the parents of 5-year-old Chen Jie as they desperately search for their kidnapped son, one of up to 70,000 children kidnapped and sold in China every year as a result of the One Child Policy. It includes secretly shot footage of a trafficker buying a one-year-old boy in a park, and negotiating the sale of the child to a couple in a hotel room."

This is the first of nine parts. I watched all nine segments on YouTube...the entire documentary, I believe. If you watch China Blue, this helps to shed light on why Jasmine, a second child, felt it was so important to bring money to her family.
According to this, the documentary is made by the same folks who did The Dying Rooms.


Kelly Hogaboom said...

I sew my children's clothes or get used. It works out well although I spend a lot, and I mean a lot of time sewing. Their other stuff is used / thrifted. I do buy them new coats and shoes and your post inspires me to check into where they are made.

Where I live I see a lot of "poor" or frugal people I know who will buy the cheapest without regard to who is really paying the cost (other people, other countries, the environment). It's great you are considering taking this challenge.

I took the Wardrobe Refashion challenge (not buying clothes new) for 6 months for my family and it was HARD. Sewing is a lost art mainly - in my view - because it is so cheap to get sweatshop clothes. I guess I consider myself a sewing activist.

Thank you for these bits of media - I will check them out.

richmomma said...

Hi, Kelly!

Here's a question for you...

When you sew, can you find material that you feel good about purchasing? I haven't looked but have wondered if I'd have the same problems buying material (or accessories like zippers, buttons, thread, etc...) that I would buying premade clothing articles.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

I always feel good about the fabric I purchase - because sewing feeds my soul! I should have clarified that I didn't start sewing for ecologically-friendly reasons. However the large carbon footprint I avoid, as well as sweatshop labor, by making my own is a bonus.

It is possible to find fabric and supplies that are created in sustainable, earth-and-people friendly ways. This article details some places to find these supplies: (Warning, fabric porn)

As well I scrounge a bit of my fabric or re-purpose something that would otherwise be thrown out or given to the Salvation Army. I take the zippers out of old jeans or buy zippers from thrift stores (usually at about 10 cents a piece). Today I'm working on three pair of pants for my son; two are cut from used garments (pajamas of my husband's, a dress of my mom's).

richmomma said...

Kelly, I love how you're re-purposing items when you sew. Anymore, places like Goodwill don't even seem to sell articles unless they are really in-style. That leaves a lot of clothing items with no home. Sewing with them seems like such a logical use. You may inspire me to break out my sewing machine yet! ;)

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