Monday, October 25, 2010

Shirt Tales

This is a tale of three shirts. There is nothing striking in appearance about any of the three, most likely because they belong to me. If I was forced to put a label on my "style" the term that comes to mind is postmodern hippie. This would loosely be defined as sporting handknit socks and a nose ring. Any accessories to accompany those items, such as shirts and pants, need to meet my two rules of wardrobe consumption.

1. The item must last long enough to justify the money I have put into it. I don't mind spending extra on something if I know I will get years of wear out of it. Conversely, no matter how appealing a particular item of clothing might appear, if it doesn't look like its life expectancy is going to extend much beyond one season I am simply not interested, no matter how much of a bargain it appears to be.

2. The item needs to have a zero fail fashion rating. This means it has to be something whose wearability will be even greater than its durability. And yes, I made the word wearability up.

By now you are probably wondering what I could possibly have to say about any item of clothing that would be worth reading, and if I was going to stay on the topic of fashion your fears would not be unfounded. However, what I have to say has nothing whatsoever to do with the appearance of these shirts. Before I continue let's take a look at the shirts themselves.

The 100% cotton shirt on the far right is from L.L.Bean. The catalog description did not specify where this shirt was made. It simply stated that it was imported. Before writing this post I was browsing through the L.L.Bean catalog looking for an item that didn't have the ubiquitous "imported" as part of its description It brought back fond memories of looking at the Where's Waldo books with my kids when they were younger, but this seemed to be the updated post-Harry Potter version where Waldo had been handed an invisibility cloak. The only items I could come up with that weren't "imported" were the braided wool rugs and Waterhog Doormats. Then there were the L.L.Bean dog beds which were, quite oddly, labeled "made in Maine and imported." I have no idea what's up with that.

Of course, it will come as no surprise when I tell you that when I received the shirt the label said "Made in China." It doesn't take an overly active imagination to picture the kind of factory this shirt was produced in, or the gruelling conditions the people employed in it most likely endure. Last spring Rebekah and I attended the Kamloops Film Festival. We watched a documentary called Last Train Home about a family whose livelihood depended on the money the mother and father could send back home from their dismal jobs in a garment factory far removed from their home in the countryside. I now find it difficult not to have scenes from that movie pop into my head whenever I buy an item of clothing that says it was made in China.

The 100% merino wool shirt on the left of the picture was also made in China, but that is the only thing it has in common with its closet mate on the right. This shirt is an Icebreaker, and comes complete with a baacode. And no, that's not a typo. This description of the baacode comes from the company's website:

"With most of the things you buy, you're told little or nothing about how they're made. Icebreaker is different. We have a deep commitment to animal welfare, the welfare of the people who work with us, and the environment. And we have nothing to hide.
Your unique baacode will let you see the living conditions of the high country sheep that produced the merino fibre in your Icebreaker garment, meet the farmers who are custodians of this astonishing landscape, and follow every step of the supply chain. We're sure you'll find the experience as inspiring as we do. Enjoy your journey back to the source."

And here is a statement from the website regarding their manufacturing ethics:

"We require our manufacturers to respect their workers and provide them with a caring, community environment that includes good natural light, clean air and healthy working conditions. Workers are paid above the prevailing minimum wage, given three meals a day and offered accommodation if necessary."

Needless to say, I felt a whole lot better about my Icebreaker purchase than my L.L.Bean one. Not surprisingly I also paid quite a bit more money for that good feeling.

In the middle is the resident "Waldo" from my closet. Last month when I was in Costco there was a huge stack of 100% merino shirts. They were the same ultra thin washable merino fabric as the Icebreaker shirt I had purchased for my trip to Korea. I picked up the shirt, fully expecting to see the words "Made in China" on the label. To my surprise it actually said "Made in Canada." Needless to say I tossed it into my shopping cart and felt guilt-free about the purchase. It also cost considerably less than the Icebreaker shirt, due no doubt to the fact it did not come with a baacode.

So my question is, which of these three shirts is more righteous? The L.L.Bean shirt seems to come out in last place given the lack of information about the conditions under which it was produced, conditions no doubt similar to those in the documentary Last Train Home. It is a closer call between the Canadian made merino shirt and the Chinese produced Icebreaker merino shirt. I have no idea what conditions faced the workers in Canada who made these shirts for Costco. I would like to think they were paid a fair wage- after all, we do have minimum wage laws in place in every province- and safety and health standards adhered to in their workplace. The picture is a little less clear when considering the practices surrounding the production of the merino wool that was used in these shirts. Were the producers paid a fair wage for the product they raised? And were the workers involved in getting that wool to the mill, or the mill workers themselves, treated fairly? Given the huge price difference between this and the Icebreaker shirt I have to conclude that corners were cut somewhere along the line.

There are, of course, no easy answers. And the reality is in today's world it is almost impossible to avoid purchasing items that are produced in countries that have very few, if any, workplace standards in place- after all, I can't go around wearing just a nose ring and handknit socks. Given that fact I have decided that the best I can do is support companies like Icebreaker and hope that more companies will be inspired to follow their lead.


  1. I think that you would enjoy a book called Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Source of My Stuff by Fred Pearce. He makes some really valid points.

  2. This reminds me of the major flaw in the conservative belief that the marketplace can solve all problems--there are still too many humans willing to exploit others.

    I'm a big fan of capitalism, but with appropriate regulations. Until fairness becomes universal, may all the Scrooge's be visited by ghosts!

  3. Or you could wear entirely handknit wool items created by YOU. Might be a little itchy, though. Seriously, you've made me want to read labels now!

  4. See, I find the conundrum almost crippling. What about the ecological footprint to get the made in china shirt here? But what about a company doing good global work? But but but ... boom - my head explodes. So I try to be a conscious consumer, but I also try not to let it consume me.