Banana Republican

MADE IN HONDURAS Of course I read everything that's around me, (It's number 80 on my list) so it probably comes as no surprise that this extends to clothing labels. Whenever I pull over a pullover, or hitch up some britches, I always peek inside to see if there's any verbiage of interest.

Most often the country of origin is plain ol' China, which is hard to envision, but other times I'm quite surprised, and it turns out that my garment was manufactured in some exotic, faraway locale. "Mauritius?" I almost say aloud. "I'm not even sure I knew Mauritius existed... where is Mauritius, I wonder?"

This is followed in short order, sadly, by a vague sort of guilt. I think about the person who made it, try to envision his (more likely, her) workstation, how the day went, what was for dinner that night, and so forth. I hope that person's shift was okay, and I like to imagine it being no more frustrating or tiring than *my* day at the office, all things considered. This delusion doesn't last very long.

Guilt doesn't fix anything, of course. Information does.

Fortunately, I found The CIA's World Factbook, offering a comprehensive, largely unbiased (as far as I can tell) listing of information about the world's 245 governments and economies, along with a Kid's Page.

The data is dizzying. Just select a company from the drop-down menu and find out about, say, Lesotho's history, legislative system, exports, environmental offenses and drug trafficking. And they update it constantly, too, (last time on December 13) making it a little less tempting to order the $99 print edition with three fold-out maps.

What I found was that, well, for starters, Mauritius is off the eastern coast of Africa, past Madagascar. I also found that this island nation, where the shirt I wore last Tuesday came from, is actually "a stable democracy with regular free elections and a positive human rights record." That's why it attracts investment from foreign companies, in this case J.Crew, which is a member of the Mauritius Chamber of Commerce alongside Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, JC Penney and Costco. Literacy in Mauritius is about 85%, way ahead of many other textile-manufacturing countries, (though Sri Lanka's got 'em beat) and a per capita annual income of $13,700. Not too shabby.

That was probably the best place I could have started, though, because after that it got a good bit drearier. In Egypt, where the prettiest of all the labels came from, the government has "failed to raise living standards" despite a booming stock market brought on by lowered taxes and privatized enterprise. In Egypt (highest point: Mount Catherine) you make about $4,200 a year, have a 1 in 10 chance of being unemployed and less than 3 in 4 of being able to read and write, and, with the growing population and limited arable land, probably hope the Nile floods pretty soon. So I'm not sure what to make of that.

Aside from a few exceptions in which the item came from a highly industrialized nation with a standard of living comparable to ours, (often only because the garment was a thrift-store find, manufactured before that nation's economy advanced to its current state) I had to admit that most of my clothing comes from "Third World" countries.

But again, I had options:
1. Slouch in shame and take up nudism
2. Find out more

I ended up comparing two entities: Gap Inc., which sells clothing under the Gap, Old Navy, Piperlime and Banana Republic brand names, and Honduras, which is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere and is the original "Banana Republic" O. Henry was referring to when he coined the phrase in 1904.

The "real" banana republic, which is actually a pejorative term that I should be avoiding using (Thanks, Wikipedia!) had a gross domestic product in 2006 of $22.54 billion. "Banana Republic," and its parent company Gap Inc., made $15.9 billion that year.

I was pleased to see the country out-earn the corporation, until I remembered that Gap's income was distributed amongst 150,000 employees, while Honduras's has to feed 7.5 million. By that estimate you could figure the average Honduran — the one who made my shirt, for instance, to be about fifty times poorer than the guy who sold the shirt.

But wait a second. The CIA also goes on to say that Honduras has in recent years experienced a rapid rise in the manufacturing sector, which reduces their dependence on coffee and, yes, bananas as source of revenue. The US, which includes the Gap, is Honduras's largest trading partner, and their growth is dependent on our economy. It says so right there.

Furthermore, according to Gap Inc.'s site, they have "one of the industry’s most comprehensive programs in place to fight for workers’ rights overseas." From what I can tell, they're doing what they can to ensure decent conditions in their manufacturing facilities. The term "sweatshop" is fatal to their public relations, which is part of why they have a Code of Vendor Conduct that prohibits child labor, forced labor, discriminating against workers, endangering or overworking them, or denying their freedom to associate with one another. They monitor the factories (which they don't own; I didn't realize that) on an ongoing basis and are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative and Social Accountability International, among other organizations. In 2005 they rejected 11 percent of the new garment factories that applied to work with them, and in 2006 they cancelled contracts with 23 factories for compliance violations. This isn't the United Fruit Company we're talking about here.

And I have to believe that a lot of this progress is because of my friend, information. As I mentioned earlier, unfair labor laws are bad business for any company that sells to the public, and there aren't many who stand to lose more by a bad reputation than Gap Inc. It would ruin them if they were to exploit people and word got out, and word would get out, at least nowadays.

So for that reason alone, setting aside any notions of justice or altruism, I think it's okay to believe my shirts aren't causing anybody misery. And, at least in the case of Honduras, it really seems like my Banana Republic pants could be helping their banana republic economy. I think.

I just started researching this, and do please correct me if I'm wrong, even partially. And I should mention that I'm not out ransacking the racks at Old Navy with reckless abandon or anything — truth be told, I think almost every garment I own was a gift or was bought used — but I do worry less now about what I'm wearing, and where it came from.

Those tags may still itch my neck from time to time, but they don't bother me nearly as much now.


Anonymous said...

K-Mart???? I know I didn't buy that!

Love and hugs

Alison said...

I find this oh so very interesting....tell me more!

Alison said...

Or should I say-
WAY interesting. :)

Just Plain Jane said...

You're an excellent blogger. Thanks,