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Sara Weinberger: On the hunt for economic injustice inside a closet

This was not a pleasure trip. There were no luxurious accommodations or dinners in trendy restaurants. The journey cost me nothing financially, but its impact was transformative.

It commenced in my closet.

My travels began after learning about the deaths of more than 1,000 sweatshop workers in Bangladesh. The degrees of separation between what I wear and the people who make them dissolved when I embarked on what I refer to as a “closet audit.”

The labels didn’t lie. Whether it was an expensive top recently purchased locally for a trip to Spain or the two for $19 T-shirts from Old Navy, almost all my clothes were made in countries where workers’ dwellings were smaller than my walk-in closet.

Americans love to shop, and clothing manufacturers have made it easy to amass gobs of clothing, the way we collect hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, by manufacturing 98 percent of our clothing outside the U.S. We sacrifice quality for quantity in the never-ending quest for bargains.

We don’t take time to distinguish between want and need. Seldom do we ask ourselves about the price paid by those who wove the fabric, stitched the seams and readied for shipping our newest yoga pants. Can the woman who stitched my favorite red tunic afford a healthy breakfast before taking her place at the sewing machine? Does she earn enough to feed and clothe her own family? How is she treated by her boss? Does her company insure employees safe working conditions?

Media images of a husband grieving for his dead wife amid a mountain of rubble in a South Asia clothing factory make us uneasy, but rarely do they result in action. My own feelings echoed those of others I have spoken with about ethical shopping. “I can’t possibly find out where every piece of clothing I buy comes from.” “I don’t have the time to investigate every country’s working conditions.” “I can’t afford to buy clothes that are made in the United States.” “Even if I do change my buying habits, it’s not going to make a difference.”

This inertia makes us complicit in supporting the race to the bottom of clothing manufacturers to deliver an endless supply of cheap clothing to fill our ever-expanding closets and their over-flowing coffers.

We can change this. In the last several years, the “buy local” movement has transformed the way we purchase groceries. Our demand for fresh, healthy food that supports local farms and has a minimal impact on the environment has persuaded even large-scale supermarkets to provide food options grown by local farmers.

For some of us this has meant paying more for what we eat, while for others, it has meant substituting meat with less expensive grains and legumes. The Fair Trade movement is beginning to affect how we satisfy our cravings for chocolate and coffee, and has given rise to businesses like Ten Thousand Villages, with 390 stores that pay fair prices to artisan groups working in 38 countries.

Here is what I propose we do to make the Valley a hub for ethical shopping.

• Give the places you shop a clear message: “I want fairly-traded clothing, made in safe working conditions!” While perusing the racks of several Northampton clothing establishments, I was dismayed to find that even the most expensive clothes were often made in countries that abuse their labor. We have the freedom to choose where we shop. Merchants need to know this is important to shoppers.

• Support businesses who engage in ethical sales. While recently shopping for a birthday present at The Artisan Gallery, I noticed some clothing made in the U.S.A., often from organic fibers. I decided to purchase the gift at this store, letting the owner know that I support businesses that try to do the right thing.

• Focus on quality. Paying a living wage increases costs. Author Elizabeth Cline coined the term “Fast Fashion” to describe our insatiable desire for cheap, replaceable clothing. You don’t need to be wealthy to shop ethically, if you are willing to buy less.

• Recycle. The Valley is full of second-hand stores that enable consumers to purchase affordable clothing, without encouraging manufacturers to pump out more and more cheap fashion. Some, like The Hospice Shop, use their profits to support charitable causes. Lowering clothing production is good for the environment too.

• Read your labels and research. Surf the Internet for the wealth of information about specific stores and reports from watchdog groups. Then, take action. Letter-writing and boycotts can effect change. Suicides in China and burning factories in Bangladesh should not be the impetus for manufacturers to improve working conditions.

Make your closet a space that honors the human rights of workers everywhere.

Sara Weinberger of Northampton, a retired professor of social work, writes about human rights issues on the third Monday of the month.

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