Amala is a third year student majoring in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology and minoring in Global Studies. She is the Campaigns Leader in GlobeMed. She currently works as a Resident Assistant as well in a research lab investigating Folate metabolism and Epigenetics.
“How many of you know where your shirt came from?”
Only one person in a room of about 50 raised his hand. I looked down at the dress I was wearing and although I knew I “snagged” it at H&M for $12.95, I had no idea where it was made.
The question was posed by Professor Adlai Wertman at the GlobeMed Hilltop at USC. A former investment banker, Dr. Wertman believes that business models should be used to create sustainable social change. The point of Dr. Wertman’s question was that a lot of us don’t really care where our stuff comes from.
It’s not just that people don’t care, but the supply chain has made it so hard to find out. The raw material for a shirt could have been shipped from China, been dyed somewhere in Cambodia, and stitched in a garment factory in Bangladesh. April 24th was the anniversary of the collapse of one of these garment buildings, the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. With a death toll of over 1,100, this is the deadliest accident in the apparel industry and it reflects the unethical working conditions and disregard for the safety of garment workers.
There are complex reasons for why these terrible conditions even exist and it’s not a new phenomenon. From what I know, it starts with companies that want to make a profit and combined with the high demand from consumers that want to spend as little as possible, the workers salaries get cut. Governments are unable to protect their citizens as large retailers threaten to move their factories elsewhere if labor unions are established. In countries like Bangladesh where the garment industry makes up more than 78% of the total exports, this kind of change can do a lot of damage.
College students are always looking for a bargain because tuition, books, and food eat up a lot of our money already. Fast fashion helps us out because we’re able to buy trendy clothes for an affordable price. Retailers like H&M and Forever 21, however, are only able to provide these cheap and low-quality clothes by paying their workers little to nothing and pushing them to work under stressful conditions.
I’m reminded of a quote from Amirah Sequeira at the 2014 GlobeMed Global Health Summit. She said that our “existence is inherently political.” I believe our clothes are a meaningful form of self-expression. However, I also think it’s important to consider the invisible hands that stitch the clothes we choose to pay for. This doesn’t mean I’m going to empty out my closet or boycott stores like Zara or Forever 21 because frankly I don’t know if that’s the answer. I am, however, going to be more aware of the decisions I make and understand that my choices have power. I’m thankful for discussions I’ve had with GlobeMedders that have allowed me to be more aware of issues going on in the world and critically think about complex problems.
As for the answer to Professor Wertman’s question… I’m still working on it.