Kelsey Timmerman's Where Am I Wearing?

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

One of the most important things that we can do as global citizens is to be aware of people and cultures around the world.  When we travel, we can try to live like - and listen to - the locals. We can spend money in responsible ways, and try to give back to communities we visit (and where we live). I recently found an book about one global traveler's incredible journey to find out where his clothes were made. The traveler? Kelsey Timmerman. The book? Where am I Wearing? A global tour to the countries, factories, and people that make our clothes. I was lucky enough to sit down and talk with Kelsey - here's what he had to say...

 

 

WE:  Please tell us about your book, Where am I wearing?

KT: It's about my global quest to meet the folks who made my clothes in
Honduras, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, and back here in the U.S.  I attempt to follow the tags on my five favorite items of clothing back to the
factories and ultimately the workers that produced them.

In Bangladesh, I went undercover as an underwear buyer and spent the day
with a single mother who was forced to send her eldest son to Saudi Arabia
to help support her family.

In Cambodia, I befriended a dorm room of eight girls who make Levis.
Eventually, I took them bowling.  They didn't enjoy it very much.

In China, I met a husband and wife that worked at the factory that made my
flip flops.  They hadn't seen their son in three years.  Like most workers
in the apparel industry, they left their home for jobs in the city.

I try to put a personal face on the controversial issues of globalization
and outsourcing.

 

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I wearing?

 

 

WE:  How has doing the research for your quest - and book - changed your
life?

KT: I've grown closer to my family and friends.  The people that make our
clothes don't have extra cash sitting around, flatscreen televisions, an
education, a refrigerator, or even a brand new pair of Levi's.  They don't
have a lot of the things we do, but they have strong relationships with
their families that they value beyond anything they could buy in a store.
They taught me that wealth is relative.

Also, I'm absolutely no fun at the mall.  All of those tags to be checked!

I've never been a huge shopper by any means, but I've been playing around
with various shopping practices.  Just the other day I went on my first
shopping trip to Goodwill and bought a pair of pants, a shirt, and a book
for under $10!

 

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I wearing?

 

 

WE:  When you traveled overseas to research your clothing labels, what did
you expect to find?

KT: I wasn't sure.  There seems to be a consensus among average consumers that our clothes are produced in the worst of conditions by workers, possibly underage, which are abused and taken advantage of.

When I told people about my quest they would usually say something like,
"Oh, you're going to visit sweatshops." I was worried that's what I would
find.

In fact, the quest and the book nearly ended before it began because I
wasn't sure if I wanted to know.  You know, the whole ignorance is bliss
kind of thing?

What I found was that it's a lot easier to look down on "sweatshops" when
you're oceans and continents away, than it is to look down on them standing
inside of a factory watching moms and dads and brothers and sisters working
away.

 

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I wearing?

 

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I wearing?

 

WE:  In your book, you are quite adept at showing the humanity behind global trade. How can readers truly get a sense of the high cost of low prices?

KT: I think it's hard for us to relate to people unless we know their name,
what makes them laugh, and what their hopes are for the future.  Part of the
reason I went on the quest and wrote Where Am I Wearing? is because I saw
this gap that existed between producer and consumer - neither one knew all
that much about the other.

This is the problem.

Economists tend to talk about the big picture (garment workers, the Chinese
worker, etc.) without introducing us to the actual workers. Many
corporations don't want to talk about where and how their clothes are made
at all. Just the other day I was working on a piece about where T-shirts
come from.  Hanes was great to work with.  They told me what and how much
came from where.  On the other hand, the GAP, who is an industry leader in
international working conditions, wouldn't even confirm that their products
were produced abroad.

 

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I wearing?

 

 

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I wearing?

 

WE:  How has researching your book changed the way you view travel?

KT: I'm not sure if my view of travel has changed all that much.  I still think
that travel instills an increased caring about our world and the people in
it.

However, the reason I travel has changed quite a bit.  In fact it changes
in the book.  The whole idea of this book - looking at the tag and going to
the country - at first was an excuse to get away and to travel.  It was more
recreation than anything else.  But then I got caught up, and I just I had
to know as much as I could about the lives of the people that make our
clothes.

Now I travel to answer questions and to write.  The verbs "Travel" and
"Write" have become one and the same.  I travel/write to introduce readers
to people around the globe.  I travel/write to give voice to people that
are often never heard from.

I suspect the reasons I travel will constantly evolve.  My wife and I are
expecting our first - a girl - and I can't wait to show my daughter the
world.

 

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I wearing?

 

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I wearing?

 

 

WE:   What can people do, to make a difference in the lives of workers
worldwide? What can people do to support economically and globally
responsible companies?

KT: Be an engaged consumer.  Ask yourself what's important to you.  Maybe you don't want to buy anything made in China because of the country's human rights record. Maybe you want to support developing countries like
Bangladesh to encourage their growth.  Maybe you want to only buy American.

If good working conditions are the most important thing to you, look for
companies that have a corporate code of social responsibility that is more
than a paragraph or two, have third party inspectors inspect the factories
from which they source, and reveal the locations and names of these
factories.  If a company that you like doesn't do these things, call 'em up
and ask why.

I came across a book the other day, "The Better World Shopping Guide."  It
grades companies and products in terms of their environmental and social
practices.   It's kind of a cool little tool that fits in your back pocket
that you can consult when you don't have time to look into a brand
yourself.  Pick up a copy.

Brands like American Apparel and Patagonia are doing a lot to advance the
dialogue about worker's rights.  I give them my support.  Find some
companies that you like and stick with them.

 

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I wearing?

 

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I wearing?

 

 

WE:  Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

KT: The people who make our clothes work hard and sacrifice a lot to have their jobs.  They don't necessarily work in sweatshops, but they could be treated and paid better.  Many of their struggles are our struggles or the
struggles overcome by our grandparents.

I want people to look at their favorite T-shirt, be able to locate the
country where it was made on a map, and imagine what it would be like to
sit in a crowded apartment or dormitory chatting about the weather, arm hair,
or big noses in that country, laughing at the world until their bellies hurt,
and sharing stories.

I want people to imagine the reality of our world and realize that whether
American or Chinese, consumer or producer, we're not so different.

 

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I wearing?

 

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I wearing?

 

 

WE: Thanks so much, Kelsey. You sure have enlightened me, both in the book, and in this great interview.

For more information, please see his book site and his blog, http://whereamiwearing.com/
 

All photos courtesy and copyright of Kelsey Timmerman.

 

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