As I head into another busy fall for Wizard Wear, I’ve been reflecting on the meaning of Labour Day, and how it’s nowhere more important than in representing the millions of garment workers that make our clothing.
After trying out production sewing in my first season of Wizard Wear, when I made a mere 50 pairs of Wizard Boots, I couldn’t believe how my back ached, my hands grew stiff, my eyes went blurry, and my hands numb. Sewing 8-12 hours a day is extremely hard on the body and the people (mainly women) in these positions deserve a huge amount of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Whether you are a die-hard ethical shopper, or a lover of big brands like Joe Fresh and H&M, here are 3 ways you can celebrate garment workers this Labour Day (and hopefully every day thereafter).
1) Try celebrating your Made in China (or Bangladesh, Turkey, Uzbekistan, etc.) clothes.
I’ll never forget the time I was standing in a kids boutique introducing the owner to Wizard Boots, when I picked up a different pair of baby socks to compare and the owner rolled her eyes. “Oh, those are just cheap socks from China,” she said. I was dumbfounded. Not because I felt validated by her comment. On the contrary, I began to realize the profound disconnect with have with the clothing around us. Because despite the price of those socks being “cheap”, I saw the immense amount of resources and (wo)manpower that had gone into making them, despite them being “Made in China”.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful that we value our locally made clothes so highly, but I’ve seen others get down on imported goods for biases that no longer apply. Yes, there might have been a time when the quality of clothes from outsourced labour might have been sub-par. And there might have been a time when designs from outsourced countries were better known as cheap rip-offs. And yes, politicians might position these countries as “taking jobs away” from “us”.
But the reality is, many corporations CHOOSE to make their clothes abroad to take advantage of vastly cheaper currencies. Let’s face it, a lot of us couldn’t afford the same clothes if they were made at home. And most garment workers abroad are working under extremely tenuous conditions. Much more than garment workers in local factories with fair-trade working conditions.
So try this, hold up your “cheap” big box t-shirt to a friend and say “look, isn’t this a beautifully locally hand-made in China garment from a store named Joe Fresh.” Cause let’s face it, that garment worker is probably putting in the same amount of care in those seams as any worker in North America. They deserve the love!
[NB. As for dissing big corporations that take advantage of their outsourcing contractors by refusing to pair fair wages and providing humane conditions for their workers? Yes, ok. But please don’t diss the workers.]
2) Reframe what “local” means to you and why it’s important.
Saying “Made in Canada” is no longer that simple. We live in a global village and our lives (not to mention economies) are so intertwined it’s practically impossible to divide labour so clearly. Maybe it’s time for labels that simply say “Made by humans”.
- What if I told you that my local factory was staffed entirely with Chinese immigrants (most of whom speak negligible amounts of English). So yes the factory is technically in East Van, but walk inside and you might as well be in Hong Kong. Does that still count as “local”?
- What if I told you my father-in-law (who happens to be Chinese) once owned a factory in China and initially offered to help me get Wizard Wear made there. His family is there, so that felt ‘local’ too, just local to a different part of my family. Would that make outsourcing ok then?
- What if I told you a friend initially recommended I go straight to manufacturing in Asia because “once you’re there, you can befriend a family, and they are happy to produce your whole line for you, because you’re employing the whole family.” So it’s not local, but it feels personal. So is that outsourcing acceptable?
- What if I told you the workers in the East Van factory were most likely sending some of their wages home to Asia so their children can grow up in their home country, and come to Canada for university, where schooling is considered higher quality. So the economic benefit of my production is staying local, but only temporarily. Does that then make producing locally better?
I point out these inconsistencies to illustrate that IT’S COMPLICATED.
What’s the solution? How about start by figuring out what your values are around buying “local”. Are you doing it for economic reasons? Or environmental? Or a bit of both? Is it feasible for you to buy locally-made clothes entirely? Or can you make do with buying second-hand clothes in order to avoid shipping things across continents? Or do you feel less obligated to support the “local” industry because you have family ties to a country across the pond? There are no right answers here. It’s a personal choice, and it’s worth contemplating so that you can shop more mindfully and align your consumerism with a deeper sense of connection to your community.
3) Challenge yourself to recycle and reuse garments as much as possible.
One of the best ways to celebrate the human resources that went into your clothes is to let them keep on giving. If we can adopt a mindframe of re-using and recycling, whether it be through donating our old clothes to thrift shops and/or buying second-hand clothes ourselves, we are slowing down the fast-fashion cycle and getting a better yield on the investment of making the clothes in the first place.
The important thing here is to build a stronger personal connection with the clothes you wear.
Despite the many technologies in the garment industry, the vast majority of clothing we wear is still made by humans. So take pride in every stitch you put on your body. It was made with the skilled hands of a craftsperson. And when we remind ourselves of the essence of the labour that went into our clothing, we can begin to transcend the simple economic cost of that labour and ascribe a deeper value to our work. We all work on behalf of our fellow global citizens, and no one should be relegated to back-breaking labour at the expense of another’s wealth. The more connection we feel between us, the more we’ll be inspired and motivated to ensure our global garment workers have everything they need to live a happy and healthy life.
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