He asked me if I had any ideas for new material. Boy, did I. At first it was an excuse to travel. But when I showed up at the factory and met a worker named Amilcar, I completely chickened out. What do you get paid? What are the working conditions like? And so on. Not knowing what life was like for Amilcar or any of the other garment workers around the world really began to eat at me. So I pulled out a pile of clothes and went to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China—this time to ask the questions I wanted to know.
But what about Amilcar? All of this started with him. In a way, this adventure is an explanation of what I did with my college education. My degree—a bachelor of arts in anthropology from Miami University—hangs on the wall of my office. The degree is worth less than the frame that holds it—because I never got a job due to my degree in anthropology. But the curiosity for the world that my studies inspired and the empathy that anthropology taught me have been priceless.
They helped me find my way. Since so many freshmen across the country start their college careers reading this book, I hope they will find it useful. My Where Am I Wearing? The people I met have inspired me to be a better neighbor, consumer, donor, volunteer, and a better glocal global and local citizen.
And all of this started with Amilcar in Honduras. Maybe he has a family. Maybe he still works at the garment factory. Maybe has haunted me since that fateful day in when I met Amilcar. I scan the notes that year-old me scrawled, and I stare out at the blue beyond.
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They were made in China. This question inspired the quest that took me around the globe.
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- ICAF 2009, Bridging the Gap between Theory and Operational Practice: Proceedings of the 25th Symposium of the International Committee on Aeronautical Fatigue, Rotterdam, The Netherlands,27–29 May 2009.
It cost me a lot of things, not the least of which was my consumer innocence. Before the quest, I could put on a piece of clothing without reading its tag and thinking about Arifa in Bangladesh or Dewan in China, about their children, their hopes and dreams, and the challenges they face. This quest is about the way we live and the way they live; because when it comes to clothing, others make it, and we have it made. You should feel privileged I told you. I would like to think that I won the award for my stellar collection of Scooby-Doo and Eric Clapton T-shirts, but I know what clinched it—junior high, when my mom still dressed me.
Basically, I was the Bugle Boy. You might not remember the brand of clothing known as Bugle Boy, but you probably remember their commercials where the sexy model in the sports car stops to ask the guy stranded in the desert: Excuse me, are those Bugle Boy jeans you are wearing? I had entire Bugle Boy outfits.
As far as most consumers are concerned, clothes come from the store. Clothes came even later in the chain for me during this time—from gift boxes on holidays or birthdays or just magically appearing on my bed with Post-it notes hanging from the tags:. If clothing made it to this extremely comfortable stage, I normally established some kind of emotional attachment to it and stashed it away. In high school, I remember Kathie Lee Gifford, the beloved daytime talk show host, crying on television as she addressed allegations that her clothing line was being made by children in Honduras.
I had bigger problems in those days, such as, finding time to wash my dirty car or how I was going to ask Annie, the hustling sophomore shooting guard with the big brown eyes, to the homecoming dance. Globalization was a foreign problem of which I was blissfully unaware. I did know that it existed, and that I was against it. Everybody was. Huffy bicycles that were made in the county to the north were now made in the country to the south. Buying American was in. To do so, we shopped at Walmart—an all-American red, white, and blue store with all-American products.
Not only were Americans losing jobs to unpatriotic companies moving overseas, but the poor people who now had the jobs were also being exploited.
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Slouching at our desks in Sociology , we talked about sweatshops—dark, sweaty, abusive, dehumanizing, evil sweatshops. Nike was bad, and at some point, Walmart became un-American. I felt morally superior because I was wearing Asics. A degree in anthropology and a minor in geology left me eager to meet people of different cultural persuasions who lived far from the squared-off, flat fields of Ohio. While my classmates arranged job interviews, I booked plane tickets. I had seen the world in the pages of textbooks and been lectured about it long enough.
It was time to see it for myself.
The first trip was six months long, and the second and third trip each lasted two months. A love for travel came and never went. And then one day while staring at a pile of clothes on the floor, I thought, What if I traveled to all of the places where my clothes were made and met the people who made them? I was stocking up on travel supplies—duct tape, tiny rolls of toilet paper, water purification tablets, and waders to protect against snakebites in the jungle—when I bumped into a classmate from high school working in the camping department of Walmart.
More beaches? Then I told him the entire list of my clothes and the other places I intended to visit. This was the response I received time and time again. In fact, I found this automatic assumption to be rather disturbing. It seemed to be a given: The people who make our clothes are paid and treated badly. Besides, we saved a few bucks. I returned home, every bit the beach bum I was before the trip. A seed had been planted. Events changed me. I bought a home. I started to become a normal American—a consumer with a mortgage, a refrigerator, and a flat-screen television.
I began to settle into my American Dream, and comfortably so. However, the pile of clothes appeared once more, and I became obsessed once again with where my stuff was made. I started to read books about globalization and the history of the garment industry, but I felt that they all missed something. The lives, personalities, hopes, and dreams of the people who make our clothes were lost among the statistics.
I decided to resume my quest to meet these people. No one met me at the airport when I arrived in the countries where my clothes were made. No company CEO was expecting me.
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I had no contacts, no entourage, and no room reservations. However, I had plenty of mental ones. I was simply a consumer on a quest. If you asked me what I was doing, I would have told you something about bridging the gap between producer and consumer. You probably would have thought I was a bit off, recklessly throwing time and money to the wind when I should have been at home paying off my mortgage and putting my college degree to work.
But I did have priceless experiences that changed me and my view of the world. I did my best to find the factories that made my clothes. I took off my shoes and entered their tiny apartments. I ate bowls of rice cooked over gas stoves during power outages. I taught their children to play Frisbee, and rode a roller coaster with some of them in Bangladesh. I was challenged to a drinking game by a drunken uncle in China. I took a group of garment workers bowling in Cambodia. Along the way, I learned the garment industry is much more labor intensive than I ever thought.
I asked. But they would like to work less and get paid more. Family is everything, but feeding that family is more important than actually being with them.
There is a long chain of players from producer to consumer. It is made up of workers, labor sharks, factories, subcontractors, unions, governments, buying houses, middle men, middle men for the middle men, nongovernmental organizations NGOs , importers, exporters, brands, department stores, and you and me. Each takes a cut. So we shipped them our cotton, and they shipped us our underwear.
Where Am I Wearing?: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes
And that meant that Grandpa was able to buy his cheap. Trade liberalization in Europe and Asia was seen as a way to win people over to democracy and prevent the spread of communism from China, Korea, and the Soviet Union. This was not an economic decision, but a political one. They preferred to wait in line for burgers. Eventually, though, economics took over.
Developing nations wanted our business, and we wanted their cheap products. The garment industry within our own country was apt to go where labor was the cheapest and regulations the least, as evidenced by the flow from the North to the economically depressed South in the s.
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So it is no surprise that as international trade became freer, and our own standards of living higher, the industry hopped our borders and sought out cheaper conditions abroad. Sweatshop became a buzzword that fired up activists, caused consumers to hesitate, and made brands cringe. Globalization affects us all. An AllAmerican Chinese Walmart. The Chinese Fantasy. No Black and White Only Green. Hungry for Choices. Made in Cambodia. Those Who Wear Levis. Those Who Make Levis. Blue Jean Machine. Treasure and Trash.
The Faces of Crisis. Made in America. For Richer for Poorer. Restarting Again. Return to Fantasy Island. Amilcars Journey. An American Dream. Touron Goes Glocal. Appendix A Discussion Questions. Appendix B Note to Freshman Me. Where am I wearing? The Mission. Growing Pains. The Real China. On a Budget. Labor Day.