In The Wearhouse

31 08 2011

Not too many years ago, I was wandering the aisles of Kohl’s. And not that I was particularly worried about what I might find, I began looking at clothing tags in the Men’s Department. It took only a couple of minutes to conclude I was standing in the middle of a textile league of nations. China. Guatemala. Pakistan. Bangladesh. Heck, there were countries I didn’t even recognize.

Maybe they were new or something.

As a business kind of guy, I fully understand why companies source their wares overseas. It’s all about cost, and the most important cost factor is labor. So important is this factor that the US often ships cotton and fabric to other countries to have them assembled into clothing.

And shipped right back here. So you can buy them in Kohl’s.

Although I get the cost savings aspect of the equation, I never really gave much attention to other variables, things like working conditions, living conditions, safety, child labor practices, etc. Yes, I know all about the various boycotts that have been waged against American retailers for selling goods allegedly produced in sweatshops, and I recall the problems Kathie Lee Gifford had in the 90s when suddenly she became associated with the whole mess.

But when I read Kelsey Timmerman’s Where Am I Wearing? this summer, I realized there was something I had missed entirely.

WAIW is the Common Reader selection for West Texas A&M University this academic year. All freshmen are required to read the book. I have chosen to make it a required reading in my MBA Seminar in Marketing course as well. Kelsey has graciously agreed to work with my colleagues and me in conducting research regarding people’s views toward the examples he cites in his book. He’ll be on campus at the end of September to speak at Freshman Convocation, as well as make at least one other nearby appearance.

Kelsey’s preoccupation with the “where” of what he was wearing came, coincidentally, from a similar such “let’s look at the tag” experience as had I. The only difference is that Kelsey was motivated to write a book about it. So he traveled around the world, trying to find the factories that manufactured his t-shirt, jeans, etc. He was able to get inside factories and meet workers. He lived and walked among the people who made his clothes. He walked a mile in their shoes. Literally. Or maybe it was flip-flops.

It’s not that Kelsey is against foreign-made clothing. He’s not opposed to free trade. But he is concerned about the people who effectively work for us, often in less-than-perfect conditions. Yes, he understands that wage comparisons must be put into cultural and economic perspective, and he is very much aware of the fact that some employment sure beats no employment. Because the latter often leads to hunger, homelessness, and even prostitution.

More importantly, though, Kelsey has realized that, in rather stark opposition to the TOMS shoes model of donating a pair of shoes for every pair we purchase, third world conditions are not about being shoeless. It’s about poverty.

Which will make for a very interesting campus visit this fall given that TOMS’ founder Blake Mycoskie was just on campus last April as a Distinguished Lecturer.

So at the end of the day, Kelsey’s mission is not to simply toss people fish, but rather to teach them how to do it themselves. And by drawing our attention to the country of origin of everything we wear, he hopes to make this our focus. It’s not about being pro-union. It’s not about guilting people into buying American. No, it’s about raising the collective consciousness about the need for more global education.

In a Facebook Message to my colleagues and me, Kelsey said it perfectly: “My book has converted “free trade will save the world” folks to anti-sweatshop activists and anti-sweatshop activists into free traders. I’m not sure what success is to me. I guess I want to get the reader empathizing with the workers and those who live in poverty and start thinking about these issues in terms of the people impacted for better and/or worse by them.”

Which gives all of us something to think about the next time we find ourselves in Kohl’s

Dr “Tag, You’re It” Gerlich

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One response

31 08 2011
Kelsey Timmerman

I’m excited to see what your research finds and I’m honored to have changed the way a “business kind of guy” sees the tags of his clothes.

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