A mini U.N. in my closet – but at what price?

One of two shirts I often wear, made in Bangladesh
one of two shirts I often wear, made in Bangladesh

A factory in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed Wednesday. More than 3,000 workers were inside, making clothes to fill orders placed by stores like Walmart, working at monthly wages equivalent to only $ 38.00 U.S.  When the building began to shake, chaos ensued as people ran for the doors. At last count, more than 350 were killed, crushed under the weight of a building shoddily constructed but only days ago certified as safe by engineers.

The commercial asks: “What’s in your wallet?” But the tragic news from Savar begs a different question: “What’s in your closet?” Looking at shirts only, I discovered in my wardrobe “made in” tags from:

Bangladesh

Vietnam

Hong Kong

Macau (administered by the Chinese)

Lesotho

Nicaragua

Kenya

Guatemala

Pakistan

India

Bottom line? I have a mini U.N. in my closet, but at what price?

The “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12) ethic of the Christian faith teaches us that sin is not just an affair between us and God. Sin always has collateral damage, affecting others. Sometimes, sin insidiously weaves its way into the economic structures of our world, producing what theologians call systemic evil.

The factory in Bangladesh paying its workers little more than $ 1.00 per day is there in part because of the shirt hanging in my closet. If I and countless other consumers had chosen to buy shirts only from stores who outsource to safe manufacturers that pay fair wages, then Wednesday’s tragedy may have been avoided.

But let’s face it: We want cheap shirts and pants and running shoes and power tools, and the list goes on.

I have seen the face of evil, and it is me.

James 4:17 teaches that if we know to do good yet refuse, then we have sinned. So let’s get practical. Solving all systemic evil is overwhelming, on that we can agree. Yet surely we can light a candle and not just curse the darkness. Short of becoming Amish and spinning my own clothes, how should I react to the systemic evil in this instance?

1) As a regular customer of Walmart, I can tell them that I am sorry for having participated in this tragedy by buying their clothes from Bangladesh. Further, I can invite them to join me in demanding changes.

2) Until those changes take place, I can find a store that guarantees its products were produced responsibly in safe factories that pay a fair wage. Will I pay more? Most likely I will, but here the Golden Rule applies again. If I were working in Pakistan, Kenya, or anywhere else, would I want to receive a fair wage?

3) Finally, I can buy local products on purpose. When I buy things made close-by, I can be more sure that those who made them were fairly compensated. Also, by helping a local company grow its local market, they will spend less on transporting the goods far away. This in-turn will reduce the energy used and therefore the greenhouse gases produced to transport it to far away customers.

Systemic evil includes all of us, yet we can loosen its clutch if we are intentional. Like Jesus, let’s remember that loving “the least of these” (Matt. 25:31-46) means loving those who make the things that I use every day.

————

UPDATE: Since this story broke, I noticed that clothing from Bangladesh at the Atlanta airport was marked down by 75%. Time will tell whether this distaste on the part of the buying public will endure.

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