Garments of Justice
The proposal for my residency is to spend a year at Christ City researching, developing and beginning implementation of a program that works against sweatshop garment labor and supports creative and ethical production and consumption of clothing.
In the big picture when we look at the clothing industry in America we see the vast majority of the labor is outsourced to other countries. By relying on vulnerable countries American clothing companies are able to maximize their profits because the lack of labor laws and/or the lack of the enforcement of those laws. In these scenarios they are legally (most of the time) able to pay their workers far below a living wage as well as allowing them to work in terrible and dangerous conditions (Bangladesh being the prime example recently*).
In response to these practices is a vision to make an organized and concerted effort to unite churches in Memphis in a mission to exclusively support fair-trade clothing companies for a set period of time and therefore boycotting the companies that do not. The means of informing and educating believers about why this is such an important cause will be the obvious dissemination through pamphlets, print outs, blogs, websites and talks that urge believers to join in the fight but also and most importantly through community (Parishes and Huddle groups).
The idea is not only to support these growing clothing industries that create fair- trade and organic clothing, but to do so exclusively for a specific period of time, say 6 months (for the first run). Before this time starts all the participating churches will have signed a document/letter of intent/letter of protest that will be sent to the major clothing companies as well as the local and federal government informing them of our activities. This way when companies’ sales are adversely affected they will know why. This will make said companies far more interested in what we have to say as a significant portion of their consumers who are abstaining from their products. The signed document/protest letter will also explain the church’s desire and intent to do business in the future with these companies if they choose to change their practices (we will develop a list of “demands”).
Community and abstinence
Another aspect of this vision is the aforementioned community piece. I believe that discipleship and intimate community through the Parishes and Huddle groups as well as mentorship from other intentional communities will be what allows this project to become a way of life that helps distinguish believers’ life styles from that of the world.
*April 24th, 2013, an eight-story factory building in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers. The disaster at Rana Plaza brought new attention to safety conditions in the country's booming garment industry. Zarrouli, Jim. “After Bangladesh Factory Disaster, Efforts Show Mixed Progress.” NPR.org. 24, April 2014.
This looks like small groups of believers in Christ City who are willing to work together, hold each other accountable and be creative in finding and creating alternatives to supporting sweat shop labor. This is also an opportunity for some of us to say “not only are we up for buying different and more costly clothing but maybe we might be willing to decide that we don’t actually need to buy as much stuff as we thought.” Loosening the grip of consumerism on our souls is an important aspect of this idea that can make this more than just a social justice project but a means of drawing closer to God, transforming our priorities and perspective on consumerism and our spirituality, about what we need and what we want.
Below is a list of ways I believe this will make a positive contribution to Memphis and beyond:
1. Connections to jobs abroad and at home
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to Justice everywhere.” Letter from a Birmingham Jail, MLK
This is a truth that goes back to that first bad decision in the garden, sin has cosmic implications. On a practical level we live in a global economy in which everything is very visibly and concretely interconnected. Because of our system of free market capitalism American companies can look for the countries that have the most lax or non-existent labor laws and insurance requirements in order to maximize their profits. All of this is at the expense of thousands upon thousands of our overseas brothers’ and sisters’ ability to live simple and sustainable lives. But this affects American citizens as well. In fact a huge factor in job loss of US citizens is outsourcing jobs *.
A company like Gap looks at American workers and sees people who are protected from working in unsafe conditions with unreasonable hours and says we cannot “afford” to create the conditions for factories here to employ these people without significantly damaging our profit margin. Imagine what could happen if companies were forced to produce a clean supply chain for clothing production and pay workers fairly. Perhaps some of these overseas jobs might return to America and raise our unemployment rate since the profit margin compared to shipping costs would shrink. These jobs could be especially helpful among the working poor and those without a decent opportunity for a job that can provide enough income to make getting off welfare a viable option.
*Nothink economists assume that new, better jobs are on the way for displaced Americans, but no economists can identify these jobs. The authors point out that “the track record for the re-employment of displaced US workers is abysmal: “The Department of Labor reports that more than one in three workers who are displaced remains unemployed, and many of those who are lucky enough to find jobs take major pay cuts. Many former manufacturing workers who were displaced a decade ago because of manufacturing that went offshore took training courses and found jobs in the information technology sector. They are now facing the unenviable situation of having their second career disappear overseas.” Roberts, Dr. Paul Craig. “The Offshore Outsourcing of American Jobs: A Greater Threat Than Terrorism”Globalresearch.ca. 09, November 2013.
2. Non profits and Christians’ perspective on money and charity
You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but manage to find loopholes for getting around basic matters of justice and God’s love. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required-Luke 11:42 The Message
Christians in Memphis are very generous supporters of non-profits and this is overall a good thing. Still it seems that non-profits are often forced to react to systemic problems and have little power to do more than bandage those hurt by systems full of corruption. So we have a scenario where many Christians try to save money by finding good deals on clothing and other material goods and use a portion of their savings to support non-profits. This is a broken system because many of the problems non-profits seek to correct could be minimized and in some cases eliminated by smarter and more sacrificial consumer decisions. So imagine a scenario where Christians are united and organized in spending their money on higher priced clothing (and eventually other products) knowing that this clothing was made by people overseas or in the US making a living wage under fair and just working conditions. Would Compassion International need us to support as many children? Would cities still have an unsupportable tax base? Would we need as many non-profits to deal with evictions and provide shelters? Would there be as many men and women locked away in prison that may have never turned to crime if they had the opportunity for a good job? Would there be workers dying in building collapses and fires in factories overseas? I believe the answer to all these questions is no! Who has the power to change this? The consumer and specifically the organized, empowered by the Holy Spirit, Christian consumer.
3. Light to the world
“Proclaiming the Year of the Lord’s favor”
In the US the church is losing a measure of effectiveness and relevance for a number of reasons but what if we as a church said that this injustice in our supply chain for clothing couldn’t be ignored? How could this change the way the world views us? Not to mention how are actions actually reflect the gospel. On an individual level it seems insurmountable but as a church we can change the course of history. What kind of message would it send to the entire world from the city of Memphis to the villages of Bangladesh and the towns of Cambodia? That the Christian church wants to see what Christ proclaimed, The Year of the Lord’s favor –good news to the poor, liberty for the captives, sight for the blind, to free those who are oppressed. That we refuse to be passive recipients of products made from the labor of those working like slaves and actual slaves. We will both find alternatives and curb our spending on material goods and the world will see that we do not worship our comfort over justice and mercy, and that the poor and disenfranchised of the world need not suffer for us to have convenience and “great deals” on clothing.