Tuesday, May 21, 2013


I don't buy much clothing. My kids are almost done growing, I have a full wardrobe, my size is roughly the
same year to year, and I'm not a fashion chaser. We replace what wears out, less than $1000/year for the household ($100 per person), another $500 for shoes and cleats and sports uniforms and sweats. Food's a much larger portion of our household budget--$10,000/year ($1000/pp). Housing even more, in one of the most expensive areas of the country--$30,000/year ($3,000 pp).

But when our kids were younger, we spent much more on clothes. They grew out of them constantly, and every season there were new demands--back to school clothes, holiday clothes, summer clothes because last summer's didn't fit and, sadly, didn't fit anyone else either. To make it manageable, we went to the Children's Place. Their $6 shirts and shorts were a lifesaver to
our budget for eight children  The store offered credit, and points for using the card, that made the clothes even cheaper. Full outfits with socks were usually $10. Winter jackets $20, and the prices at the nearby outlet mall were even cheaper. The clothes were sturdy, and cute. Like Garanimals, they matched. Every season I toted out a big bag, a few outfits for each child, and we were all very happy with the deal.

Of course to get the $6 shirts and shorts, the Children's Place used cheap labor overseas. Like Gap and Gymboree (too
expensive for me :) or Old Navy (too adult-oriented then, though it's nice now), manufacturers have to pay next-to-nothing for labor in order to sell clothes at these prices, since the materials, the design, the corporate structure, the transportation, the overhead of the stores, the retail labor, are all based on physical product (i.e. oil for barge transport) or American prices (like minimum wage for the sales staff) and as such relatively fixed. Sure, you can be lucky on the cotton commodity market and save some production cost there, but cotton's relatively cheap in the largest clothing-producing countries--China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India. They're full-service manufacturing countries, complete with cheap labor. Here are the 2010 garment worker wage charts according to a global labor rights advocacy group, and after an 80% pay raise for Bangladeshi workers:

CountryHourly Wage
United States$8.25-14.00
United Kingdom$7.58-9.11
Costa Rica$2.19
El Salvador$0.92
Sri Lanka$0.46

So after the Savar building collapse in Bangladesh last month that has killed, so far as we know, more than 1,100 people, I heard people saying they'd buy more American-made clothing, which is great. Nothing
wrong with that. But the Bangladesh nation is a poor one, and doesn't want to lose your business. They ask for we Americans to help repair their system, rather than abandoning it. Totally understandable. The garment industry is their biggest employer. There's a commission set up to set a new minimum wage within three months, and another to oversee safety in manufacturing. Also good.

What I keep wondering is--what if clothing wasn't cheap?

I know some's not. I tend not to buy those goods--designer clothes and purses and shoes and sunglasses--but most clothing is relatively cheap in America, considering other expenses. An outfit is less than a dinner out, for example, though of course it's prom week so that equation's skewed. Definitely not the price of a meal.

But clothing is mostly cheap, and I've benefitted from that fact, and spent my money elsewhere. But if
clothing wasn't cheap, I'd buy less of it, and make it last longer, give less away. Spend less on food, and housing. I can't really make any more money than I do, so I'd simply spend less elsewhere, the beauty and curse of a budget. And in America, the cheap clothes we buy allows us to pay full-price (if we wish) on Uggs and North Faces and Nikes and Dooney & Bourke.

Am I the only one who wonders if it's better, ethically or even practically speaking, to spend $19 on a pair of Old Navy jeans so that you have the money to spend $81 on a pair of Raybans? Either way, you've spent $100. What if the equation was reversed, and you had to spend $81 on jeans? I'll bet you'd find some $19 sunglasses somewhere. It's just a different dividing of the pie.

As opposed to sunglasses, though, clothing is a necessity, like food and housing and health care. We'll buy it regardless. We'll just buy less, if it costs more. Go to Goodwill in a pinch. We'll get by, as Americans, without our $10 outfits from the Children's Place. That's all I'm saying. We're not overprivileged, well-paid, cheap-clothing junkies at the risk and cost of  underprivileged, poorly-paid human laborer lives.

At least I hope not.

Love, Lisa

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