The Cost, Part 1

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A few months ago, I was working in my studio when my setup caught the eye of a mom walking by with her young son. He was looking into the studio in wonder as his mom was pointing and explaining to him what seemed to be going on inside. I invited them in so he could take a closer look. His mom was eager to show him the sewing machines, and the leather, and how bags were made, by this lady right here! Isn’t that amazing? The whole thing was very charming and I felt like a minor celebrity.

Then she told him that, nowadays, most bags are made completely by machines, not people. “Who do you think makes better bags, machines or people?” she said.

“Um, machines?” he answered. Seemed reasonable.

“No, people!” she exclaimed.

Then it felt like all three of us were silently wondering why that was the right answer. The conversation moved on, and a little while later they left.

I was so touched by this mom’s excitement to show her son the wonders of the world, including my little corner of it. But I keep thinking about this exchange because of a very important reality that those of us living in a consumer culture either don’t know or choose to forget: bags are made by people. The same goes for clothes. A robot did not make your purse, or your blue jeans. A human being did, working in good conditions or terrible ones. Of course machines help in the process, but let us not forget that people, real people, make our clothes and accessories, using their hands, their eyes, their whole bodies. If only the factory at Rana Plaza had been full of robots when it collapsed.  

Given the fact that human beings make our clothes and bags—a fact that has been true for all of history and will remain true even as our phones start reading our minds and our cars drive off without us—how the hell did we get to a point where we think a t-shirt should cost $5?

We think this because we think, or pretend, that a robot made it. And it’s not exactly our fault that we tell ourselves this. When is the last time you saw an ad for a major clothing brand that featured the people in the factories who made the clothes? When you’re shopping online, how often do you see evidence of the supply chain behind what you’re buying? Until very recently—and this complete lack of disclosure is still the norm for the vast majority of brands—it was bad PR to give people any indication of where these clothes and accessories came from. The truth was bad for business.

This is the first of a two-part series on how we value the things we wear and carry every day, and the stories, real and imagined, behind them. To get a reminder when part two is live, subscribe below. And! A gentle reminder (don’t you hate “gentle reminders”?) that February 15 is the last day to order from the shop before I pack up and move to Italy.

Interested in learning more about the global fashion supply chain? Check out the Fashion Revolution website. Also, several years ago NPR’s Planet Money did a fascinating series on the industry through the lens of producing a single t-shirt. A powerful line from the series: “Our industry follows poverty.”

Margaret HennesseyComment