This small book is from an excellent series on single items — others worth reading are on condoms, diamonds and mosquitoes; as are most writing by The New Internationalist, including other books series and their monthly magazine; pithy, easy to read and packed with interesting information — that always makes global connections.
The universal T—shirt started with a simple undershirt, a singlet, worn in Europe, became an army garment and it emerged by 1950s as a popular outer garment in the T form we know today — cotton, short sleeves and round high neck.
The plain T—shirt soon became an irresistible blank canvas for images and messages — geographic souvenirs, political slogans, cartoons and sophisticated photo and silk screen pictures. But it is the popular concept of people being willing to buy something, probably made in an Asian sweatshop, and wear it while advertising the corporation that sells it that amazes me. Why are so many people willing to pay to make themselves and their children into billboards and pay for the ´privilege´?
Che Guevara must be the most popular T—shirt decoration in the world — sadly more of a fashion statement than a political stance. Here he is shown smoking — a rare image— on a young man in Palestine — a place where smoking is almost universal. Photo: TW/08
It is because of the essential cotton content that she says, “the T—shirt is a perfect guide to the veiled world of cotton.” This is a world of global commerce, chemicals and politics.The beauty and simplicity of this garment still masks a nasty history and an ugly reality from the slave trade to indentured labour to the present of sweatshops. Powerful corporations that manipulate genes with ease can manipulate our desires just as easily. Independence movements and colonialism have been replaced by trade agreements and economic neo—colonialism.
Cotton is grown and harvested in hot and humid weather. In modern times it is the world´s most chemically treated plant — from seed to store. GMO cotton has been promoted in Asia — often followed by crop failure, massive peasant debt and frequently resulting in suicide of the ruined farmers. Labourers harvesting cotton world wide do gruelling work for low wages. In factories making yarn and garments sweatshop workers (including children) of today are as badly treated and disposable as slaves in the past. All this to fuel the vast greedy corporations that create today´s consumer world.
Gandhi spun cotton as a political and spiritual act every day. His concern for cotton fuelled an independence movement and his spinning wheel is on the Indian flag. Photo by Rita James, my mother, on board ship, 1931.
Many organizations are challenging and informing about our access to cheap T— shirts.
“Sam Mahr of Look Behind the Label, which campaigns against sweatshops, says: When you buy a T—shirt for a few pounds it´s only so cheap because someone else is paying the cost.”
There are two forces trying to change our consumer habits. Better known is the campaign for ´organic.´ While not addressing the need for labour justice, this campaign is helped by personal concern about ´healthy choices´ in the minority world and a more general concern for the environment. Wells says that the organic T—shirt does not contain chemicals, respects the fertility of the soil and promotes the development of wildlife. While workers are not exposed to massive levels of chemicals, they may still be exploited by owners and bosses. This is where fair trade comes in. A fair trade product means that workers at all levels have decent working conditions and secure wages; it also means that community life — schools, clinics, utilities are supported.
“T—shirts are big business: the industry is currently worth about $60 billion a year, The challenge is to have more support for Majority World producers on fair terms.”
That requires a massive consumer re—education campaign. We Minority World shoppers who think we have a divine right to cheap and plenty have to re—think our values. It can be done — fair trade has been growing at a rapid pace in coffee, cocoa and tea — changing the lives of millions of workers. It can be done with cotton. We can shop less and when we buy, buy justice — on T—shirts ” everything. And when we wear a decorated T—shirt, choose our message carefully, make the statement we support. Wells has given us documented reason to change our values and to get us active. She ends with a never truer than now quote from Shakespeare.
“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”