The Lives behind What We Wear

Hundreds of millions of Americans from all walks of life do the same exact thing each day, a careful ritual that they have done every morning since they can remember. They walk over to their dressers or drawers and put on the clothes they need to start the day, all without thinking too much about it. Sure, we think about what to wear for the weather or occasion, or about brand and style, but so often we forget the simplest thing about what we wear: where the clothes came from, or who made them.

I’m sure everyone is different, but I know for sure I’m guilty of this—it’s so easy to imagine that, rather than people, a bunch of automated devices in a warehouse far away are churning out one garment after another. Rolls and rolls of fabric into one end, millions of pants and jackets and scarves out the other. Knowing I would soon be on my way to work for Shahi, one of the world’s largest garment exporters, I knew I had to throw out this convenient misconception in my head. It’s possible to forget it (or ignore it), but each and every thing we wear—whether it’s from Walmart or J.Crew—was not created by a machine, but by a human being with his or her own life, a unique set of hopes and struggles and stories.

Before I left for India, I wanted to get a better picture of what life is like for those working as tailors in garment factories so that I could know what to expect. This proved to be harder than I thought it would be. A quick Google search on the topic often led to more horror stories than anything else. Whenever I told friends at home that I would be working for a garment manufacturer, they seemed to always respond with reflections on the latest exposés of the industry that they saw on the news–fires and forced labor, among other atrocities. While at first I would shake these stories off as poor representations of the garment sector, I later started to question myself. What if they were right? No matter what, I decided I had to focus on my reason for going to work at Shahi. I would not be perpetuating the problems of the industry, but actively working to make them better.

I kept this all in mind as I made my first trip to the factory floor with my interns. The floor was exactly the opposite of what you might see on the news–it was brightly lit and the enormous fans kept the temperature in control. The colossal room was completely filled with the active hum of machinery and with the vibrant colors of the cloth of hundreds of brightly patterned saris. Even though I tried to prepare myself before I arrived, I still found myself awestruck. You can think as hard as you would like about the source of your clothing, but nothing prepares you for seeing it in person, for coming face to face with those who labor over and create what you wear every single day.

As I saw more and more factories while traveling all throughout the south, this scene became less surprising, almost commonplace to me. I often had to remind myself that while the conditions were fairly good at Shahi, the company like any other is far from perfect, and that workers in other less regulated companies were facing conditions that were unthinkable in comparison.

Every day I tell myself not to let the hundreds of people I see day to day fade into the background, like they used to be in my mind before I came to India. This is why I decided to focus on developing the counseling system in the factories. In a company with thousands of workers, it becomes important to remember the humanity in each person. It is impossible to fully understand what any individual is going through, but perhaps by improving the scope and reach of the company’s counseling services, each individual can at least be offered the attention and open ears that they deserve. If I succeed at improving the program in any way I can, it would be only one small step towards progress in the scheme of things, but one I would like to think could make a difference for many people. As my project continues to develop and take shape, I look forward to sharing more about both the barriers and successes I face.

But before then, I hope that those who read this blog pause next time they reach for their shirts in the morning. Think about who made them, who might have played a part in getting them to where they are today. It may be hard to fathom, but it is so incredibly important not to forget the lives behind what we wear.

2 thoughts on “The Lives behind What We Wear

  1. Some of your readers may be familiar with Marie Kondo, the best-selling author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up –the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing.” In it, she suggests thanking your clothes for bringing you joy. By her system, if it doesn’t bring you joy, it’s probably something you don’t need to keep. I believe your article would resonate with her.

    1. That’s such a great way of thinking about it. I’ll have to check out Kondo’s book. Thanks for reading, Billie.

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About Joshua Jordan