By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Christopher Cox of The Human Thread campaign asked his St. Ambrose University audience for a show of hands of people wearing something that someone made for them. One person raised her hand. The other 100 people in the room March 2 kept their hands in their laps. Then Cox asked attendees to read the clothing tag on the shirt of the person seated next to them to identify where the shirt was made.
When asked to name the countries on the labels, attendees called out: China, Honduras, Korea, Jordan, Pakistan, Japan, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Nicaragua and Egypt. “My T-shirt is from Haiti. I know it’s Fair Trade,” said one woman, referring to a trade practice that fairly compensates workers.
Cox serves as campaign manager for The Human Thread, a campaign to raise consciousness and empower Catholics to advocate for the plight of garment workers worldwide. The impetus for the campaign was the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh that killed 1,133 garment workers and exposed abuses connected to the sourcing of clothing (humanthreadcampaign.org).
He quoted Pope Francis, who said of the tragedy: “Living on 38 euros ($50) a month — that was the pay of these people who died. That is called slave labor.”
Awareness, followed by activism, can bring about change, Cox suggested. Awareness begins with knowing more about the countries where clothing is made and how garment workers in that country are compensated and treated. The fact that multiple countries can contribute to the manufacturing of one article of clothing makes that effort more challenging, he noted.
Many in the audience might have been surprised to learn that the garment industry represents the largest percentage of human trafficking victims working in compelled labor. The average wage of an LA garment worker, where more than 100 garment factories are located, is $4 per hour, far below the minimum wage. “Just because something says it is made in the U.S. doesn’t mean it’s a good product,” Cox added. He also expressed concern that as more undocumented immigrants are forced deeper into the shadows of the U.S. they are more vulnerable to such exploitation.
Another casualty of the garment industry, Cox says, is the climate. Ten percent of all carbon emissions annually are attributable to the clothing industry, he adds. The manufacturing of polyester, a popular fabric that is cheap to make, requires enormous quantities of oil. Manufacturing processes also result in toxins leaching into the soil. He shared a reference from “Laudato Si,” the encyclical that Pope Francis wrote on Care of Our Common Home in which the Holy Father criticized a throw-away culture of mass consumerism. Americans throw into the landfill an average of 87 pounds of clothing per person, Cox said, to illustrate the pope’s point.
“Every time we buy something we’re voting for the kind of world we want to live in,” Cox observed.
What can you do to make a difference?
• Tweet, email or write to the companies that sell your favorite clothing brands and ask: “Who made your clothes?”
• Talk about this information with family and friends.
• Consider alternatives. Shop at Fair Trade stores, local stores and second-hand/thrift stores.
• Research your favorite companies and see how they rate in ethical, sustainable business practices online.
• Bring the campaign to your community, parish or school.
• Contact The Human Thread, 1015 N. 9th St., Milwaukee, Wis. 53233; email: www.humnathreadcampaign.org.