Factory Disasters in Bangladesh, Consumerism, and Original Sin

I approach buying clothes for my children with the same compulsive attention to my kids’ individual needs and wants that I bring to Christmas gift buying. Focused attention to my kids’ clothing needs is, for me, as much an embodiment of maternal love as cooking is for some moms. Finding a shirt that I just know one of the kids will love, zipping up a child’s heavy fleece jacket on a cold morning, watching them tear out the front door on the first really warm spring day in new shorts and sandals, even folding the constant stream of laundry—each of these tasks gives me the satisfying thrill of caring well for my children.

The other morning, I went to a discount chain to get Leah some summer clothes. While I usually don’t shop there, it was easy (close to home, lots of parking) and I knew they would stock the basic denim shorts that are her summer mainstays. I was having a great time, seeking out things in her favorite colors (shades of green and blue), looking for tanks to layer under a deep vee-neck shirt, chatting with a friend who was also shopping. Then, I picked up a pair of shorts and in looking for the size, saw that the shorts were made in Bangladesh. Suddenly my fun morning of shopping was marred by images of garment workers crushed by collapsed concrete, others trapped in a burning factory.

I was forced to remember that the mounds of cute, inexpensive clothes through which I so cheerfully picked are likely made by very poor people on the other side of the world. Maybe even people whose work is governed by powerful folk who put profit ahead of treating workers with the care they deserve.

Beyond the sharp reminder of how my privileged life contrasts with, and is connected to, lives of far less privileged people and the concomitant guilt was another feeling—helplessness. What am I to do? What are we to do with the knowledge that heaps of clothes with familiar labels were found outside the garment factories that became mass graves for workers?

In a post here on Patheos, Chris Smith quotes Amy Peterson in arguing for a “slow” approach to clothing—one that values clothing as something to be cared for, rather than bought on sale and thrown away when it is no longer fashionable or comfortable. Her suggestions are good ones—getting clothes secondhand, finding local seamstresses able to mend or make clothes, getting good-quality fabrics and finishes that will last. I already do some of that. But I am still left feeling that a significantly different relationship with my family’s clothing is a pie-in-the-sky dream, not a doable reality.

For all sorts of noble and good reasons, I could send my children to school in basic cotton dresses, shirts and pants easily made on a sewing machine, by me (if I first obtained the right equipment, developed sewing skills, and took time away from other pursuits to sew) or someone else. But the fact is that fashions matter (even to my relatively non-fashion conscious teenager). That such a fact testifies to our culture’s (and my family’s) superficiality and frivolity doesn’t change that it is, indeed, a fact. There are all sorts of reasons I’m not going to start making my kids’ clothes. That they would not want to wear them is a significant one, even if it shouldn’t be.

The more doable option is to purchase clothes produced in factories that pay a fair wage and ensure worker safety. Such practices likely drive up prices. In fact, I usually avoid the type of discount stores where I shopped last week. Because I don’t buy my kids a whole lot of clothes, and because we get some secondhand items, I usually shop for higher quality clothes that also cost a bit more, albeit with coupons and sale prices. But these clothes also have labels saying they are made in Vietnam or China or Bangladesh. I am not at all sure that paying more ensures that our family’s clothes are being made under better conditions.

It strikes me that this conundrum—my complicity, as a Western consumer, in injustices committed on my behalf—speaks to what we mean when we talk about “original sin” or the scriptural truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” From the moment we are born, with pain and blood and tearing, our very existence becomes complicit in other people’s anguish. Sometimes, as with the pain of birth or the pain of growing up, learning life’s important lessons the hard way, we can see purpose in that pain. We witness redemption, pain embraced because it brings new life, pain accepted because of love.

But sometimes, our very existence, our most mundane daily actions, cause pain that is not so easily redeemed. Sometimes our existence creates ruptures in the fabric of life that aren’t so readily healed. The clothes that protect my children from the weather and bring color to their days endanger children on the other side of the world, because their parents make those clothes in unsafe conditions. The minivan that enables me, with my weak bones and painful joints, to do the many errands that sustain my family’s life, also contributes to climate change endangering people and species around the globe (as does the fossil-fueled mechanicals that keep my family warm in winter and allow me to take the near-daily hot baths that ease my joint pain).

Human beings are born consumers, our existence exacting a cost, demanding nourishment from soil, water, and other living organisms; the burning of one thing or another to heat homes in cold climates; the labor of sewing fabrics to clothe our bodies. Westerners, of course, have become uber-consumers, demanding more than our fair share, imperiling other people and our planet.

Every day, in ways big and small, my existence and my children’s existence demands something from this earth and its inhabitants. We can and do take small steps to lessen harm, from accepting the offer of secondhand clothes to keeping the house uncomfortably chilly on winter days. But I can’t help but feel, in the aftermath of these months of factory fires and collapses, devastating hurricanes, news of ice caps melting at an unprecedented pace, that whatever we do cannot possibly be enough.

Contemplating these dynamics, the truth in some scripture passages is all too apparent—”All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), “…there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3), “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous; no one who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20), “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).

The problem is clear, the remedy less so. The assurances that follow some of these passages, assurances that we are saved from sin by God’s grace, ring hollow. These assurances are so often interpreted as being about the salvation of individual souls, when I want assurances that the gashes we have created—the gashes I have created—in our communal fabric will be repaired. The reparation of such brokenness seems too huge for my meager offering to check labels more carefully, to spend a few dollars more, to only shop at retailers that follow through on pledges to oversee garment workers’ safety. It seems that reparation must require something far more powerful, far more sacrificial, to become manifest.

God has promised to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. This reparation and restoration is not a mere prophecy of divine wand-waving. Rather, in responding to God’s grace by offering grace to other human beings and our planet, we work alongside God to bring this new heaven and new earth to life.

But while I believe this, I cannot see it. I feel helpless. Whatever I do, it is not enough. In a theological sense, this is okay. I am not supposed to save the world. I am not even supposed to save myself. One reason that recovering addicts find so much strength in the notion of a “higher power” is that they know, better than those of us who delusionally believe that we can control our lives by exercising prudent choice, that they are utterly helpless to save themselves, much less anyone else, and especially the world.

So we admit we are helpless. And then we take steps—tiny, faltering steps—to own up to the ways we have wronged and continue to wrong other people. We take even more faltering steps to make amends. This is all good, but there is still pain. Women in Bangladesh still labor to make the cute summer clothes my privileged children wear. Factory owners and company CEOs still decide to cut corners in the name of profit. Buildings catch on fire and collapse and people who were trapped by circumstance become trapped in body. And all I have to offer, besides those tiny steps, are excuses for the ways in which I too am trapped in a consuming culture, struggling to imagine a different way of being.

Update: This article discusses retailers’ efforts to better ensure worker safety. I am sorry to note that the company whose store I was shopping in last week is on the list of retailers who have refused to sign on.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Very sobering, Ellen. You say “people who were trapped by circumstance become trapped in body” and then point out how we are also trapped by the choices and challenges of privileged and power. To that, I echo your feelings of helplessness, a feeling that comes on stronger than guilt for me as well.


    P.S. Here’s a short piece I wrote on our ethics and Bagladeshi factories: http://timfall.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/what-price-ethics-ask-a-bangladeshi/ . It’s not as good as yours, but I hope it provokes more discussion.

  • Dave Parker

    > But the fact is that fashions matter (even to my relatively non-fashion conscious teenager). That such a fact testifies to our culture’s (and my family’s) superficiality and frivolity doesn’t change that it is, indeed, a fact.

    No, that’s not a fact about “our culture”, although it may be a fact about “your culture”. The US has many cultures.

    For example, fashion doesn’t matter at all to me, and to most of the people I work with. I wear almost entirely gray sweat pants and gray t-shirts (I have 8 of each, one for each day of the week plus a spare). My entire wardrobe costs less than $100, new from Walmart.

    I thinks it’s ironic that “my culture” follows the teachings of Christ better than the people who call themselves Christians. Perhaps that’s one reason why church attendance is declining; Christians proclaiming “fashions matter” instead of “And why take you thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin” Matt 6:28

    As Ghandi said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

    However, that’s not to say that fashions are necessarily bad, despite the fact that they may be unChristian.

    Certainly, fashions can be bad — for example, the fashion about 100 years ago when ladies wanted bird feathers in their hats (the “Plume Bloom” as it was called), which led to the extinction of the only parrot species native to the Eastern US, the Carolina Parakeet.

    But I think that fashions can also be good. For example, if the fashionable items are made from a plentiful resource (such as cotton or polyester) that can be renewed, then fashion — which is basically better-off people buying items more often than they need to from worse-off people — provides more employment for the worse-off people, thus raising their standard of living. Even though over 1,000 people died in the apparel factory collapse, that’s only a tiny fraction of the over 60 million people who work in the apparel industry in 3rd world countries — and I think that many more than 1,000 of the 60 million would be dying from hunger, disease, etc, if it weren’t for the income from the apparel industry.

    So at it’s best, I think fashion can almost be considered a kind of charity.

    • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

      Dave, Jesus said that the core issue for people is to turn to him, not follow his teachings. Read the first part of John 15 and you’ll see what he means there. As far as doing what he does without turning your life over to him, it’s just a bunch of noise according to 1 Corinthians 13.
      As the writer of Hebrews says, it’s keeping our eyes on Jesus – the originator and perfector of our faith – that’s important. After that, everything else comes into place or falls away entirely. (Hebrews 12:1-2.)

      • Dave Parker

        > Jesus said that the core issue for people is to turn to him, not follow his teachings. Read the first part of John 15 and you’ll see what he means there.

        I think that in John 15, Jesus says the core issue is to follow his teachings.

        “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” John 15:10

        “You are my friends if you do what I command.” John 15:14

        • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

          Chicken or egg, Dave? I tend to think Jesus meant those things are evidence of already belonging to him, not prerequisites for joining the club.

          • Dave Parker

            > Chicken or egg, Dave? I tend to think Jesus meant those things are evidence of already belonging to him, not prerequisites for joining the club.

            Perhaps John 3:36 might help to clarify it for you:

            “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” John 3:36

            So according to Jesus, not obeying his commands gets you beaten with the wrath stick for all eternity.

            But what about before eternity? I’ve noticed that while they are still living, lip-service Christians provide their own punishment by beating themselves with guilt sticks.

            P.S. Matthew 19:21 might also shed light on what Jesus considered to be prerequisites: “Jesus said to him, If you will be perfect, go and sell that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”

          • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

            Read ‘em all, Dave, many times.

          • Dave Parker

            > Thanks,

            You’re welcome.

            I’m always kind of amazed how often it turns out that I (an agnostic) am the only person quoting Christ on topics supposedly from a Christian perspective.

            It reminds me of Ellen’s quote from Christian Wiman on her post “Articulating the Mystery of Faith: Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss”” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ellenpainterdollar/2013/05/articulating-the-mystery-of-faith-christian-wimans-my-bright-abyss/ :

            “… liberal churches that go months without mentioning the name of Jesus …”

          • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

            By the way, your use of Matthew 19:21 is out of context. But you probably already knew that.

          • Dave Parker

            > By the way, your use of Matthew 19:21 is out of context. But you probably already knew that.

            I don’t think it’s at all out of context.

            It’s a specific example of Jesus laying down a specific prerequisite to becoming one of his followers — the wealthy young man had to sell all his possessions before he could follow Jesus.

            You said you didn’t think that Jesus thought that “following his teachings” was a “prerequisite for joining the club”, but I think this is a pretty clear example of exactly the opposite. Not to mention the specific statement of John 3:36.

            Beyond that, it’s an example of what Jesus might have considered to be one of the prerequisites to joining the club: abandoning your attachments to worldly possessions.

            Jesus acknowledged that that’s a very hard thing to do for people with lots of worldly attachments (“It’s easier for a camel …”), but Jesus told his disciples that God could change the hearts of even very wealthy people (“With God, all things are possible”).

            Just like Mother Theresa, with persistence and prayer, was renowned for getting lots of very obstinate wealthy people to donate lots of money to her. With God, she changed their hearts. Which everyone else thought would be impossible.

    • tedseeber

      That doesn’t entirely let you off the hook.

      “My entire wardrobe costs less than $100, new from Walmart.”

      And given what I know of the textile trade, your entire wardrobe cost Walmart less than $16, and was likely sewn in Bangladesh by people earning less than $1/day.

      • Dave Parker

        > That doesn’t entirely let you off the hook.

        There are so many hooks, I’m not sure which one(s) you think I’m on:

        1) The “I’m devoting too much thought to my raiment” hook.

        2) The “I’m spending too much money on my raiment” hook.

        3) The “I’m spending too little money on my raiment” hook.

        4) Other. :)

        I think that $1 going to Bangladesh for my minimal wardrobe is much better than $0 going to Bangladesh.

        And even though Jesus was pretty clearly against devoting too much mind-space to thinking about clothes, I think the Bangladeshi’s might be happier if I was a clothes horse and was sending them $10 or $100 for a more extensive wardrobe.

  • Keri Wyatt Kent

    “I am not at all sure that paying more ensures that our family’s clothes are being made under better conditions.” Yes, that, exactly, is what’s so frustrating. And even if it says it was made in Bangledesh or wherever, we don’t know under what sort of conditions. Thanks for wrestling with this issue and refusing to pretend there are pat answers.

  • Marie Alford-Harkey

    Oh Ellen, you give such eloquent voice to my own dilemmas. Thank you. There’s an Episcopal prayer of confession that says, “We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” It always comes to mind when I contemplate my privilege and place in the world. It has been constantly in my prayers since the deaths in Bangladesh.

  • tedseeber

    Original Sin. The doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church most hated by postmodern liberals, and the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church with the most real world data proving its existence.

    So if you don’t mind some advice from a pre-modern Catholic:

    Read your Chesterton. GK that is.

    I’d start with food rather than clothing- same situation exists, but you can still get local food, the local textile industry crashed under the weight of cheap imports more than 40 years ago. Oh, blankets are still profitable enough (my sister in law just joined me at the Knights of Columbus Convention in Pendleton- and the ladies went off and enjoyed a tour of Pendleton Woolen Mills- she came back to the hotel room with a blanket). But most everything else is made by the cheapest possible labor unless it is custom ordered. Anything “fashionable” is going to be made by near-slave-labor someplace.

    Food, on the other hand- find a local CSA- community supported agriculture. You will get more for your money, but will have to pay up front for a season. But in return for that paying up front- you are ensuring a profitable season for a local farmer, his field hands, and their families.

    • Dave Parker

      > Read your Chesterton.

      His Father Brown stories are some of my favorites.

  • Jerry Lynch

    You were shopping in Romney World. Or Republirama. This is enter stage Right. When historians write about this period of history fifty years from now, if they are honest, the Republicans will come out as the greatest threat to decency, civilization, and freedom of every epic. Few seem to have a clue as to how horrific are Republican policies and destructive the Tea Party agenda.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      While I am a proud Democrat, I don’t think we can lay this particular sin at the feet of Republicans. Consumerism and an addiction to cheap goods is a multipartisan problem.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Mindfulness. We would need another five Earths to sustain us if the rest of the world ate as much meat as we do. Never mind how much of the Rain Forest is being destroyed, each square acre estimated to hold at least 200 unknown species of flora and fauna that exist nowhere else (which may hold cures for any number of diseases and afflictions), in order to feed beef for McDonalds. Mentioning this, is this being a liberal? That is what Conservatives will tell you. And that includes most evangelicals. We are not being “stewards of the earth,” we are being rapists. Capitalism is a crime against humanity, no matter what any Right Wing Christian may tell you.

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