The other night, my husband and I walked past the 4 story H&M in the middle of Hong Kong’s luxury district. It was late summer sale time, jackpot for patient shoppers who have been waiting all summer for these 3 weeks of bargain glory.
And as a self-identified cheap shopper, I soon found exactly what I had hoped to find – something marvelously light and 60% off. My thriftiness all summer was being rewarded. Out of habit, I flipped over the label, and saw a few very common words – ‘Made in Bangladesh’.
It stirred up a familiar dilemma, bringing me back to the Thai-Burma border, where a few years ago I spent some time with a few young women outside a grim, cheaply constructed building. They were on their 15-minute dinner break, two-thirds of the way through a 12-hour shift at a garment factory. And in the midst of the bright lights and the hip soundtrack of H&M, I knew I had more than a cosmetic choice to make, I now had a moral one.
(… which was shortly followed by, ‘Damn it, you shiny pretty things, stop making it so hard!’)
Unfortunately, affordable, mass-produced fashion is predicated on cheap labor. I have no idea what conditions the shirt-in-question was made under, but I do have a general understanding of careless factory conditions, power imbalances, women’s rights abuses, and other problems that accompany factories in the developing world.
So it made me think – what is the logical consequence if I don’t buy this $6 Bangladeshi shirt? I would be withholding my sweat drop of business from an empire that will hardly notice the loss. I could verbalize my complaint in a letter. Actually, I could blog about it. But even if my tiny protest did succeed, I might be naively chipping away at an establishment that has possibly created the best paying jobs that a few Bangladeshi women have had in years.
So maybe I should quit moralizing it and just enjoy the shirt.
Except over the past few years, I’ve been struggling to align my consumption with my beliefs. Part of it is being ethically consistent. Some companies make it so easy to experience a moral massage when you make a purchase. There are these shoes I get where a child in a slum in the Philippines or Ethiopia will get the same kind for free. When I wear them, the shoes become a bit of noise, a pat on the back… But a complicit silence accompanies my ‘Made in Vietnam’ slacks.
Another reason for resisting an innocent but unnecessary purchase is found, for example, in Jesus’s words about going out with a staff and some shoes and trusting Him for the rest. I’m pretty sure he was being literal, but let’s just go with a modern Sunday interpretation and just say he was being metaphorical. Be a figurative disciple and leave your figurative home with just the clothes on your back — we in the church would STILL struggle to understand what He was getting at: ‘Live simply. Trust Me. Seriously, you don’t need the stuff.’
After a big move last summer, where I had to sell or give away a lot of things I’d become attached to, I was a bit sickened with everything I’d accumulated and my reluctance to let go. Living simply is an amazing freedom, one that I haven’t yet managed to attain. Reading Richard Foster’s brilliant book, “Celebration of Discipline”, helped with seeing the need for simplicity as a way of Christian life, but I don’t yet know what that looks like for me.
Well, I guess in one case, it looked like this: I found my husband in the store and said, “I found what I want. But I don’t think I can get it.” I was a bit depressed, truly, both at missing out on getting a sweet top and at the implications of this choice on my future ones. Because, really, would I bother to work through the same process every time I walked into a shop?
Anyway, this post isn’t about H&M (because, substitute in most store names), nor is it even about working through guilty pleasures; it’s a long search for simplicity as a follower of Christ. It’s His call to live simply that allows us to live in our inconsistency with thankfulness and let go of our stuff with generosity. I’m so glad He doesn’t ask me to burn all my non-fair-trade clothes (which is very unlike breaking CD collections, of course).
It’s a long road. To be honest, I’m thankful that I’m writing this post as we leave a pretty distracting Asia and settle back into thrift stores and sewing machines in the US. That kind of move just helps when you’re a cheap Christian.