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Review: Where Am I Wearing?

March 14, 2009


Kelsey Timmerman was curious about where his clothes were made, so he decided to try to find and visit the factories where his t-shirt, boxers, jeans and flip flops were made.  He traveled to  Bangladesh, Cambodia and China. He also visited a factory in the US.  He discovered that clothing companies used to run their own factories, but that is no longer true.  Now they design a product and hire a factory to make it, so the same factory makes many styles and brands of clothing.

He discovered that 76% of Bangladesh’s exports are from the garment industry, which employs two million people there.  When he visited a factory, he found the conditions to be tolerable.  Later, he met some of the workers on a personal basis and some of their stories are heartbreaking.  They work long hours, live in crowded conditions and barely make enough to survive.  He learned that many of the young men of Bangladesh are forced to go to Saudi Arabia to work to help support their families.

In Cambodia, Kelsey found a country that is still struggling to overcome the Vietnam War.  The fields are filled with mines and many people have been maimed by them.  He found streets full of beggars and dumps full of scavengers.  The garment industry there seems to be sweatshop free, but it still has it’s problems.  Unions are allowed, but they don’t work well together and there is corruption.  Still, the life of a garment worker in Cambodia is better than that of a lot of it’s citizens.

The factory in China would not allow Kelsey to enter.  He was able to visit with some of the workers, though.  He found that they often had to work 16 hour days, 6 days a week and were forced to work without pay at times or risk losing their jobs.  Many of the workers have moved from rural areas to urban areas to work at the factories and send money home to support their families.  They live in conditions that we would find intolerable, yet claim to be happy.  He said,

It doesn’t seem fair that Dewan and Zhu Chun have to work so hard for so little and I, who serve little function, work so little for so much.

Kelsey’s last stop was at a factory in the US.  A former Converse factory, it was converted to American Classic Outfitters when Converse closed.  The factory specializes in jerseys for athletic teams.  The atmosphere and attitudes of the employees were very different from those in developing countries.  He stresses that the factory had to find an area to specialize in, in order to survive, though.

I try to be a conscientious consumer, so I really enjoyed Where Am I Wearing? by Kelsey Timmerman.  This book is filled with facts, but it doesn’t read like non-fiction.  Actually reading about the workers’ daily lives was fascinating and was a gentle reminder that people everywhere want the same things we do, but unfortunately many of them don’t have the opportunity to get it.  Since Carl works for a company that manufactures products (not garments) in the US, I try to buy American when I can and have been known to spend more on a product simply because it was made in this country.  I know I will be reading the tags before I buy clothing in the future.  One last item from the book worth thinking about when you shop – Kelsey was talking about a lecture he heard in college when he wrote,

. . . Our professor introduced us to the concept of the race to the bottom.  Companies would go wherever labor was the cheapest and often that was wherever the people were the most desperate.  He told us that China was winning the race as evidenced by the majority of our stuff being made there, and, as trade became freer, it would continue to lead the race to the bottom.

So, what do you think?  Every time you shop for clothing, you vote with your wallet.  You decide whether you want to protest the salaries and living conditions of garment workers or if you want to support the garment industry in developing countries.

Review copy provided by John Wiley & Sons.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2009 8:49 am

    This is right up my alley. I’ve had the book on my PBS list for quite a while, and I’m glad to see a good review. I admit that I am not the most aware person when it comes to shopping. I think if I paid more attention not only would I support the right people, but I’d spend less money. (Because I wouldn’t be buying cheap useless crap. The dollar section at Target gets me every time.)

  2. March 14, 2009 9:38 am

    Great review. This book sounds like it would really make the reader think about each purchase. Thanks!

  3. March 14, 2009 9:41 am

    Great review — I try to be a conscientious buyer as well. I bet there is a lot more for me to learn. I’ll have to see if my library has this one.

  4. March 14, 2009 10:27 am

    I also read this recently. It made me really wonder how much good boycotting would do considering it may just make these people unemployed. Hard to decide. I do try to buy local if I can, though.

  5. March 14, 2009 11:30 am

    Sounds like a great book and a great way to stay informed!

  6. March 14, 2009 11:34 am

    Thanks for the informative review. Such a huge moral dilemma, one that requires as many facts as possible in order to make an informed decision that one can feel comfortable with.

  7. March 14, 2009 11:55 am

    Reading this would certainly be educational for me, and I’m glad it sounds very readable in spite of having a rather boring-sounding topic.

  8. March 14, 2009 12:47 pm

    This sounds really interesting. I’ve seen a few programs about the garment making industry in these countries and it’s awful. On the other hand what would happen to them if they had no jobs at all. I do though try to make a conscious effort to pick up things Canadian made if I can.

  9. March 14, 2009 1:19 pm

    Meghan brings up a great point, that it’s a very complicated issue. After all, sometimes those factory jobs are saving people from the sex slave trade. But having said that, I think if you buy fair trade or American, you are making a stronger vote.

    I also strongly believe in buying in American when possible. Probably because I have seen several people lose their jobs at work as my own company ships more of our product to be made overseas. I’m still not exactly sure how they regulate things overseas, um like the product we make.

    Anytime you get something for cheaper than you think it should it be, there’s a cost somewhere. The bottom line is we just don’t need as much stuff as we have. 🙂

    I’m also reminded of what Shane Claiborne said…once he’d visited the (I think it was Nike) factories and seen the “tiny fingers that stitched” together the shoes there was no longer the option to live in oblivion.

  10. March 14, 2009 4:56 pm

    I love this type of book and I’m thrilled that you found it didn’t read like non-fiction. Onto the wish list it goes!

  11. March 14, 2009 4:57 pm

    This looks very interesting. Great review!

  12. March 14, 2009 6:10 pm

    What a great review Kathy. I look for american made items and try to buy as much as I can. Sadly, our options are limited but it is worth it to pay more for US made. I do understand the dilemna that these jobs overseas help those live a bettter life. It’s finding a balance and a way that US companies can afford to make our products here again. I have a review copy of this book on my TBR stack and look forward to reading it.

  13. March 14, 2009 6:18 pm

    This looks so interesting, thanks for the informative review. I have to say that I would most likely not boycott certain companies, because like it was said above by Amy – “sometimes those factory jobs are saving people from the sex slave trade.”
    Another thing I’ve noticed is that all across the web people respond to the book by saying “I try to buy American as much as possible” which is great, but does that mean a person wants to support good, safe workplaces with fair pay or do they want to support their own country only? Yes, I’m Canadian and I’m totally not trying to trash-talk the USA but their are many companies in Canada, England, Germany etc that also have fair workplaces and some of them use technology/materials that are ecologically friendly.
    When I’m buying things I’m more likely to buy from a company that supports earth renewal. I’m not trying to sway/discredit anyone’s choice but just opening another avenue of thought. 🙂

  14. March 14, 2009 7:49 pm

    What an intense review. I don’t see how anyone could pass this book up after reading your post.

  15. March 15, 2009 2:24 am

    Nice job summarizing this book. And I thought Timmerman did a great job of showing the many complicated facets of these issues. Reading it changed the way I shop, for sure.

  16. stacybuckeye permalink
    March 15, 2009 10:13 am

    I try to vote with my wallet, but it does seem that there are so few clothes made in America. I’ll have to check this out. Thanks 🙂

  17. March 16, 2009 7:41 am

    This sounds like an interesting book, especially on such a complicated issue! Lately, I’ve been shopping a lot more in thrift stories, which makes me feel better about clothing purchases. But I think there’s also a danger of awareness burn-out, you know? Where you become such a conscientous consumer that eventually you get frustrated and just give up on it all. It hasn’t happened to me, but I know friends who have had that kind of experience. Gradual change is probably the best way to guard against that. (Sorry I’m rambling-too early in the morning!)

  18. March 16, 2009 8:21 pm

    I really enjoyed this as well. I did go around and check labels in a lot of my clothing after reading it. An eye opener for sure.

  19. March 17, 2009 8:20 am

    Thanks for the great review of my book. I’m not sure there is a better compliment for a work of nonfiction than, “This book is filled with facts, but it doesn’t read like non-fiction.” That made my day!

    Since writing WAIW? it’s been great to learn how others shop. Thanks to all for sharing.

  20. March 18, 2009 8:25 pm

    My grandmother was really funny about only buying clothes and stuff from the US whenever possible when I was kid. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized she was trying to be a conscientious consumer.

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