Change Starts With A (Fair Trade) T-shirt
As we come to the end of another fantastic National Fair Trade Month, we would like to thank Kelsey Timmerman + ALL of our Fair Trade partners for their never ending work to increase the quality of life of the many people in our supply chains but most of all we would like to thank YOU for continuing to #BeFair by buying our Fair Trade items!
A T-shirt changed my life. That’s a lot to ask of a T-shirt, but it’s true.
Tattoo from Fantasy Island, the hit show in the late 70s and early 80s, was on my life-changing T-shirt along with his demand: “Come with me to my tropical paradise.”
I wondered where Tattoo’s tropical paradise was so I checked the tag and it read: “Made in Honduras.” I booked a ticket to Honduras.
I was 24 and rather untethered to a career as a SCUBA instructor. My love for travel had given way to a love of writing about my travel experiences. Over the past few years I had played PlayStation in Kosovo, spent the night alone in Castle Dracula in Romania, and had been held hostage by the hospitality of Tibetan monks in Nepal.
Before I knew it I was making tens of dollars per month writing about my travels. It was the world’s most expensive hobby, and I loved it.
I didn’t need much of an excuse to go anywhere. Following Tattoo’s invitation and the Made in Label on my T-shirt was simply a random act of travel to collect more stories.
In Honduras, I taught an island-village to play baseball, went SCUBA diving, and was nearly killed by a deadly venomous snake on a jungle hunt for crocodiles. (That was a bit too much adventure!) Yet nothing life changing happened until I decided to trace my Tattoo T-shirt all the way back to the factory where it was made.
The guard at the front gate wouldn’t let me in, so I waited to the side of the factory for the workday to end. Amid a flood of workers heading home, I got one to stop and chat with me. His name was Amilcar. He was roughly my age. I learned he lived with his parents and liked to play soccer. I had a lot of deeper questions for Amilcar. I wondered if this job provided a better life for his family, how much he got paid, how he was treated.
I didn’t ask him any of those questions. Deep down I’m not sure I really wanted to know. But once you meet someone who made your clothes, you can’t unmeet them. As I continued on with my travels, I couldn’t shake that I knew so little about the lives of the workers around the world who make our clothes.
To say I became obsessed with where clothes come from would be an understatement. I saved up and hit the road again, traveling to Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, and Ethiopia to connect with the people who made my clothes. The experiences I had changed the way I live my life as a husband, father, global and local citizen, as a giver and as a volunteer.
There’s this idea that those of us in developed countries have a lot to teach others on how to live, but I often found the opposite to be true. We have a wealth of resources but a poverty of community. The people I met on my journeys seem to have a poverty of resources, but a wealth of community. We value things more than they do, and they value people and relationships more than we do.
I believe there is a longing in our culture to connect things with people. It used to be that we knew the butcher, the baker, and the garment maker, but now our clothes, our food, and many of the other things we consume may come from countries we can’t even place on a map. There are a lot of reasons more of us are shopping at farmers markets, but one of them is that we like our sweet corn to have a story. We serve the sweet corn to our guests alongside a story: “That’s from Bill’s off of 28. His farm has been in the family for three generations.”
Things with a good story are easier to consume.
I’ve shared my story searching out those who produce our things in my books Where Am I Wearing? and Where Am I Eating? As I travel the country meeting readers and speaking at universities about my experiences, I’ve found that once readers and audiences see and feel the connection we have with those producing our things, they want to make a positive impact in their lives. They want to be more responsible consumers.
In 2009 when Where Am I Wearing? came out the apparel industry was exploring how to be environmentally responsible, but few brands were talking openly about how to be socially responsible. The truth is environmentally responsible decisions (using less) saves money in the long run, but social expenses (better pay, more benefits, fewer hours, and better working conditions) cost more. Treating people fairly doesn’t always make business sense.
A few years after I met Amilcar, I went back to Honduras to find him. Turns out he had looked at his life as a garment worker and decided it wasn’t going to give his family (he had three children he didn’t tell me about) the kind of opportunities he wanted to provide them, so he left Honduras. He rode atop trains through Mexico, escaping bandits and police, and crossed into California where he lives today supporting his family in Honduras in a way that he couldn’t if he actually lived with them.
Amilcar risked his life to go to the place where the T-shirts he made were sold.
But what if the job in the garment factory did provide him with a genuine opportunity? He wouldn’t have had to leave his family in Honduras. He wouldn’t have had to risk his life. A job in a garment factory can be a real opportunity, especially for workers in Fair Trade Certified factories. Fair Trade in apparel is a new and exciting development. It sets environmental and social standards. A Fair Trade premium goes back to the workers for them to vote on how to spend.
Every time that we buy a Fair Trade Certified product, we are challenging the apparel industry model of old and supporting workers That’s why the companies who are breaking new ground in Fair Trade apparel need our support.
And it’s why I’ve traded in my novelty T-shirts, like my Tattoo T-shirt, for Fair Trade prAna T-shirts.
My life was changed by a T-shirt. Now, Fair Trade Certified shirts are changing the lives of others.
Kelsey Timmerman is an author and co-founder of the Facing Project, a storytelling initiative that connects people through stories to strengthen community. Learn more about Kelsey at http://whereamiwearing.com