By Joan Ledbetter
Where Am I Wearing? is the common-read book for the GHC community this year, largely because it was Floyd County’s One Book/Many Voices 2012 choice. Selecting it for Georgia Highlands made for a very nice collaboration with the Rome community and provided an opportunity for the college community to hear a speaker who already had plans to be in Rome. The book was chosen by a distinguished group of people – our own Jon Hershey and John Kwist are on the OBMV steering committee – and deemed it a relevant read for both local students and local citizens. Was it a good choice? Allow me to offer my answer to that question.
If you have not yet read WAIM, here is the low-down. Kelsey Timmerman, a self-professed touron (touring journalist), travels to the countries most known for making our clothing and shoes. He becomes a foreign manufacturing investigator, referring to himself humorously as an undercover underwear journalist. Apparently, he was looking for something to do after a stint as a scuba instructor in Florida. No doubt this young freelance journalist’s thought processes run a good bit deeper than he tends to let on… Alas, I digress.
Kelsey, as he is informally known at GHC after his personable visit, writes an entire book based on meeting and informally interviewing the individuals who make our blue jeans, t-shirts, underwear and flip-flops. The result was a low-key exposé on the treatment of workers in Honduras, Bangladesh, Cambodia and China. He described factories without the worker-protections of labor laws, unions and work-place regulations that we enjoy in the United States. His vehicle for research, writing and reader engagement are the factory workers themselves – sometimes young girls living together eight to a room, sometimes married couples who have to leave their children with relatives hundreds of miles away, sometimes children he takes on their first and only amusement park trip. He tells the stories of these unique individuals who have very similar life experiences as factory workers, and he brings up the question of whether we should buy these products made from lives of hardship. He offers commentary on the question but does not provide a definitive answer.
And that’s for good reason. On the one hand, making a statement by not supporting and buying merchandise produced under such conditions may make us feel that we have done something positive by refusing to support unfair treatment to workers. On the other hand, if factories close because of this kind of protest, the workers’ lives become even more precarious. They can’t support their families. Is that any better than their working situation?
In using the book in my fall FCST 1010 class and listening to what students and professors have said about the book, I can report very mixed reviews. First, this book will not go down in history as one of the great works of literature. Two complaints were the most common: why should we care who makes our clothes and what their lives are like, and why do we have to read the same story over and over? Certainly, the book is redundant. It doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat because the individual stories are so similar. But I believe we should care about those who produce the goods we use simply because we are all part of the human family. We become less human the more we ignore the plight of others. Look, I didn’t exactly fly through the book. It was not a bad read but it wasn’t a fast read, either. The point that Kelsey was making is that the lives of these manufacturing workers in all the countries he visited are harsh. Some fare better than others, but all generally lead very hard lives compared to ours in America. In addition, the book is on a middle- and high- school reading level. It is not supposed to be a challenging read for those with master’s degrees and above.
On the more positive end, many students and faculty enjoyed the book very much. It was an eye-opener for many who didn’t realize the working conditions in other countries today are very similar to those for U.S. workers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Learning that fact made many of us realize how high the quality of our own lives are; it made us all realize how interconnected we are; and it made the very wise point that there are no easy answers to complex issues. Not buying blue jeans from companies that operate under brutal work conditions would deprive workers there of the best or the only work available to them.
The book does not make you want to stop buying any clothing made in China (would be difficult) but it does make you take a second look and give a second thought. Kelsey promotes companies designated Fair Trade businesses (those that adhere to the nine Fair Trade Principles of the Fair Trade Federation, one of which involves fair and timely pay for work: http://fairtradefederation.org/). He points out that boycotting the products made in the factories he visited (or tried to visit) would be counterproductive to helping the workers there but that supporting companies that promote decent labor practices will encourage all businesses to move in that direction. One can bring the book close to home when considering the factories that have closed in Rome, once a strong textile town. When one thinks of Celanese, Pepperell and the community of Lindale, one thinks of abandoned mills and mill villages – jobs taken overseas to workers making lower wages.
Honestly, though this is an excellent book to view factory workers in less wealthy countries as individuals and gain a realistic view of the people a village or city away from where we stay at a pamper-me, all-inclusive resort, I think Kelsey’s website offers more long-term interest. On his http://whereamiwearing.com/ site, Kelsey blogs his travels, his progress on his current book, Where Am I Eating? (http://whereamiwearing.com/books/where-am-i-eating/), and his activism (he gave back his Eagle Scout badge because of what he views as the Boy Scout’s discrimination against gays). You can even sign up for The Village Experience, real off-the-beaten path travel experiences: http://www.experiencethevillage.com/. He also generously shares curriculum lessons, posts videos and invites anyone to make comments on his site, follow his travels and exploits, and email him. I can attest to his level of down-to-earth friendliness – he emailed me directly when my Facebook account was hacked to make sure I knew.
Kelsey Timmerman should be an inspiration to us all because he genuinely cares about our world and he does get involved. Still, he admits that he doesn’t have the solutions to the ills of the world. He doesn’t make judgments (he is not big on sweatshop protests). His mission, besides financing his world travels, seems to be helping us get to know our fellow human beings and to make a point that should be obvious but is often absent in our society – that we should care about each other. This is an excellent book for examining sociological issues, economic practices and policies, philosophical reasoning and our responsibility to our fellow man/woman. It also serves as a wonderful guide to making a living doing what you love. So, yes, I do believe this book was a good choice for the Floyd County community read this year and for our GHC common read. The students who entered the GHC common read essay contest did a great job of relating WAIW to their lives and displayed a personal growth from reading the book. I recommend it for individual reading and for class discussions.
Note for Professors: If anyone would like to use the book in their spring class, we have Kelsey Timmerman’s talk at GHC recorded and available for classroom use. I also have more suggestions for WAIW discussions and activities than you could find time to use. E-mail me if you would like class lessons for using WAIW. My own FCST 1010 class gave the book mixed reviews but every student enjoyed finding out where their clothes and other products were made and competing for how many stars their team could get on their world maps.