Speaker encourages Catholics to become responsible clothing consumers

Presentation at St. Norbert Abbey titled ‘Do You Know Who Made Your Clothes?

DE PERE — When you compare prices today to 30 years ago, one of the few products that is now actually cheaper is clothing.

“When you think about a car, adjusted for inflation, a car costs you more today,” explained Christopher Cox, campaign manager for The Human Thread, Catholics for Clothing with a Conscience. “If you pull out a circular from 1985, a pair of jeans will cost you less in dollars than it did back in 1985. Why is that? Have the costs for the energy to run the mills gone down? No. Has the cost for the cotton or synthetic gone down? No. The only thing that has gone down is the labor.”

Cox presented “Do You Know Who Made Your Clothes? — Socially Responsible Investing and Consumer Choice,” April 5, at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality at St. Norbert Abbey.

The mission of The Human Thread, based at St. Benedict the Moor Friary in Milwaukee, is “to foster Catholics’ awareness that promotes solidarity between consumers of clothing and the people who produce them in order to create a more just economy and sustainable communities.”

The organization was founded by Capuchin Fr. Mike Crosby, who has worked on shareholder activism for more than 40 years. The Human Thread is a project of the Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investing, made up of 24 religious orders, the Diocese of Green Bay and two private investors.

In 1970, 95 percent of clothing sold in the U.S. was made in America. Today, less than three percent is made in the U.S. A full-time garment worker making $10 an hour makes more in one day than a garment worker in Bangladesh makes in a month.

“We’ve moved it to the absolute cheapest place, so we can cut those costs,” said Cox.

The monthly minimum wage in the apparel industry is $68 in Bangladesh, the lowest in the world. On April 24, 2013, 1,133 people were killed and more than 2,500 were injured when the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed. When finding out the wages of the workers, Pope Francis called it “slave labor.”

Cox warns that looking at labels on clothing for country of origin is not an effective means of being a responsible consumer. The U.S. Department of Labor and the California Department of Labor gave reports on 100 garment factories in California. Seventy had major violations. “The wage per hour violations meant that workers there were being paid $4 per hour at over 40 hours per week,” explained Cox. “That’s in the United States.”

As Catholics, we need a renewed notion of what constitutes a “good buy,” he added.

“I’m the oldest of five kids,” he said. “We were sent to Catholic schools. How did we make it work on that budget? My mom always said it was a good buy if it’s cheap and makes you look thin. As Catholics, the word ‘good’ has ethical content. How were the workers who made this garment treated? Were they paid a living wage?”

Clothing poses more challenges for responsible consumers compared to some other products. For example, at the grocery store, a shopper can choose organic or fair trade items. Most clothing retailers do not offer fair trade and sustainable options.

The Human Thread implemented a postcard writing campaign to the CEOs of two large retailers, encouraging them to carry an apparel brand in the stores that pays a just wage to its workers. Progress has been made in this area in college and university bookstores, said Cox.

“Students over the past 15 years were pushing those questions and have higher standards for that apparel,” he said. “The best garment factory in the world in my opinion is one in the Dominican Republic called Alta Gracia. The bookstores at UW-Milwaukee, Madison and Marquette all have Alta Gracia. It’s the world’s only living wage, unionized, full health care garment factory. Their wages are three times higher than those of neighboring factories.

“Most bookstores are not owned by the college,” he added. “They don’t put charitable items on their racks. It’s there because it competes and it sells.”

The University of Notre Dame, Cox’s alma mater, offers “The Shirt” each year for alumni, students and fans. “The Shirt” is now produced exclusively by Alta Gracia. Georgetown has one of the largest Air Jordan contracts with Nike. Basketball players put tape over the Swoosh in practice to stand in solidarity with students fighting that the contract not be renewed.

Alta Gracia is not going to replace Nike, Under Armour and Adidas, but by being profitable or at least breaking even every year, these major apparel companies “have no excuse for not paying a living wage,” said Cox.

What can you do in support of underpaid and exploited garment workers?

The Human Thread offers suggested actions ranging from writing to companies and asking ‘Who made your clothes?’ to bringing the campaign to your community, parish or school. Visit www.humanthreadcampaign.org for more information.