Sunday, November 16, 2008

Review: Where Am I Wearing?

Where Am I Wearing?: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes, Kelsey Timmerman, (John Wiley & Sons, Nov. 2008)

If you wear clothes, this book is for you.

This outstanding, unassuming book should not be missed—it is worth reading and discussing in every household and classroom in America.  Do you know where your clothes were made, by what types of people and under what circumstances?  Do you care?  Should you care?  This intriguing book looks into these issues and more, yet its tone is refreshingly accessible and unpreachy.

All-American Kelsey Timmerman noticed that his typical ensemble of T-shirt, jeans, boxers, and flip-flops, all bore tags declaring their foreign manufacture in places such as Honduras, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and China.  His curiosity (and his experience as a travel writer) became a mission to visit the places and meet the people who actually made his clothes.  With a backpack, notebook, camera, the clothes on his back, and a mixture of guileless intelligence, he set out to explore the globalization of the garment industry, up close and personal.

His approach is to minimize the effects of his inquiry into the factories' operations and the lives of the workers by keeping his visits as unofficial as possible.  He is just an ordinary guy who happens to be interested in the origin of his underwear.  Although he has heard about sweatshops, child labor and unfit working conditions, he wants to see for himself.  He wants to know if it's possible to be an informed, engaged consumer.  His journey helps us see that we can all be better informed.  The people who make our clothes all have names, faces, needs and dreams.

[In Bangladesh] Asad leads us past a high table with neat stacks of cloth.  A few of the workers standing around the table hold what appear to be giant electric bread cutters with blades two-feet long.  One woman marks the cloth using a pattern and then sets to slicing.  She cuts the outline of a T-shirt.  Plumes of cotton dust fill the air…the factory is clean, exits are marked, and fans maintain a nice breeze.  The conditions seem fine.  They are much better than I had expected, and I'm relieved.

In Cambodia, eight young women garment workers share an 8' by 12' room that has a squat toilet and a water spigot.  They earn between $45 and $70 per week and send home as much as possible to support family members in the countryside.  Many of them miss the culture of family and village but they are well aware of the necessity of their work to their families' survival.

Seeing these and many more disparities between the lives of foreign garment workers and the lives of average American consumers, Timmerman is guarded about sharing details of his life with those he interviews.  However, he eventually decides that "not knowing is the problem" on both sides.  When he tells the Chinese couple about his first—and second—mortgages, they find unlikely solidarity in their mutual states of indebtedness.

This book is far from a "them" and "us" comparison and guilt trip.  There are many complicated issues interwoven here, to be considered and discussed.  The warp and woof of economic and social pluses and minuses is a constantly changing pattern, and the questions—what and where to buy, how to support or protest industry conditions, how to maintain American jobs, how to influence human rights—necessitate the participation of what the author terms "engaged consumers."

Where Am I Wearing? gives an excellent starting point for discussions in order  to make informed decisions, as we determine a responsible course as the leading consumers of garments and other manufactured goods in the worldwide economic balance.

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