Category Archives: Learn

World Water Day

World Water Day 2017

March 03, 2017

Author: Christopher Cox

Category: Learn

World Water Day, on 22 March every year, is about taking action to tackle the water crisis. Fresh water, the most important resource for humankind, cross-cuts all social, economic and environmental activities. It is a condition for all life on our planet, an enabling or limiting factor for any social and technological development, a possible source of welfare or misery, cooperation or conflict. World Water Day is celebrating water as well as highlighting water related challenges. Today, there are over 663 million people living without a safe water supply close to home, spending countless hours queuing or trekking to distant sources, and coping with the health impacts of using contaminated water. Please take time to learn more and take action.  On Sunday, I learned about a notable effort based here in Milwaukee that is also worth examining: Global Partners: Running Waters.

The Human Right to Water, formally recognized by the United Nations in 2010, clarifies that it is the responsibility of companies to ensure their operations do not infringe upon the right of individuals to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water. This right is further buttressed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6, which calls for global water quality to be improved by reducing pollution and minimizing the release of hazardous chemicals.

Given its scale, the garment industry has a massive impact on global water quality. Our clothing requires enormous amounts of water. A simple t-shirt needs 700 gallons of water to make, and a pair of jeans require 1,000 gallons. Our leather products– those comfortable shoes next to your bed, that favorite purse or coat– have polluted India’s rivers with emissions of chromium and animal feces. Today, I am wearing a shirt manufactured in Indonesia, a land wear 200 textile mills and garment factories contribute to the “Death of the Citarum River.”

As the garment industry went off shore, it went to countries less equipped and less regulated in the proper handling and disposal of the chemicals and by-products of the garment industry. In some places the effects have been devastating. The documentary “The True Cost” vividly depicts the health effects from the cotton industry (in Texas and India) as well as the impact of the dyes and chemicals in the apparel and footwear factories.

Finally, each time we wash our clothes, our synthetic materials put out roughly 700,000 microplastic fibers that eventually make their way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, according to a study from the International Union for Conservation of Nature released in February. While much remains unknown at this point, consumer products, including synthetic clothing, could contribute up to 30 percent of global ocean pollution and, in many developing countries, are destroying marine life habitats.

While the total environmental effects of the garment industry are difficult to quantify as it has not been subjected to sufficient research, it is patently clear that tackle global water problems undoubtedly also means tackling our fashion problem. Our clothes, as currently made, harm global water supplies. Real engagement in these issues from the fashion industry could make a significant contribution to global water quality. Our health, our future, demands that we try.

Five Reasons to be Concerned About Our Clothes

February 02, 2017

Author: Christopher Cox

Category: Learn


In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reminds us: “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act” (#206). Five reasons, then, why we need a “fashion makeover”

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking, a form of modern slavery, is a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to 20.9 million people around the world. And no matter where you live, chances are it’s happening nearby. From the girl forced into prostitution at a truck stop, to the man discovered in a restaurant kitchen, stripped of his passport and held against his will. All trafficking victims share one essential experience: the loss of freedom. Specialists agree that more people are trafficked in the garment industry than any other industry. It can be disturbing to learn that things we take for granted in our daily lives—chocolate, clothes, coffee, cellphones–are frequently made under conditions that aren’t simply unjust, but that can only be described as slavery.

Care for Creation

In his Message for the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Pope Francis wrote:

As individuals, we have grown comfortable with certain lifestyles shaped by a distorted culture of prosperity and a “disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary” (Laudato Si’, 123), and we are participants in a system that “has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.” Let us repent of the harm we are doing to our common home.

Women’s rights: Wages and Violence

Today, a garment worker makes $68/ month in Bangladesh. Even adjusting for cost of living, the UN says that anyone under $2/ day is in extreme poverty. If these workers have dependents, they are in extreme poverty. Clothing today is cheaper than 1985. Cotton costs are up. Energy costs (to run the machines) are up. Wages are down as we offshored our garment manufacturing.

We know about a gender wage gap in the U.S. Women earn $.78 on the $1 of men. African-American women earn $.62. The single biggest driver on the global gender wage gap is the garment industry, overwhelmingly staffed by women.  As for violence, a July 2016 report revealed that one in seven women working in Indian garment factories suffered sexual abuse in the workplace. As victims often are reluctant to acknowledge sexual abuse, this number is low.

Living wage

The world’s only living wage, unionized garment factory is Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic. Their salaries are triple neighboring factories. Almost every university bookstore sells some merchandise from them. Notre Dame’s “The Shirt” is made each year by Alta Gracia. Economist John Kline concludes that their success is not simply charity from bookstores and other merchandisers. They occupy space on racks and would be replaced by other more profitable merchandise if it did not sell. He argues, not that they will replace Nike, Under Armor and Adidas, but that these apparel lines have no reason for not paying a living wage.


Christian Stewardship

We have five times more clothing today than 35 years ago. We prize bigger, walk-in closets to accommodate our clothes. Clothing purchased this year will have seven uses on average before being discarded by the purchaser. Our overflowing landfills aren’t the only obvious signs of a “throwaway culture.” The purchase of discardable clothing lends itself to thinking of the workers as disposable as well. Pope Francis often reminds us that our “throwaway culture” leads us to throwaway not only “things” but also relationships, people, beliefs, and even dreams.

The old notion of a “good buy” is that it is cheap and makes you look thin. A renewed notion: a “good buy” for us as Catholics has ethical content. How was it sourced? How does it care for creation? How were the workers treated in the making of this garment? How were they paid?

A PDF version of this post is available here:

Do Children Make Our Christmas Gifts?

December 12, 2016

Author: Christopher Cox

Category: Learn


Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

Thus begins Clement Clarke Moore’s Christmas classic. I have long loved this poem. My memories of Christmas as a child include midnight mass, and opening one present on Christmas Eve from my maternal grandmother: always a pair of pajamas. Then we (my siblings and I) went to bed until morning when, after Santa’s visit, we would open a mountain of gifts under the tree.

Such wonderful images and memories remain with me; hoping for a world where all children could have the same. However, my Christmas recollections have been jarred by another vision that I can’t get out of my head.

Recent news reports and investigations reveal anew the ongoing shame of child labor, all-too-prevalent instances of human exploitation, including children in Bangladesh and of Syrian refugee children in Turkey.  

Child workers at the small garment factory in Jakarta, Indonesia Photo: ©ILO/Asrian Mirza

Child workers at the small garment factory in Jakarta, Indonesia
Photo: ©ILO/Asrian Mirza

I recommend two articles in particular:

In and effort to supplement the meager household income of their parents some of those children are also victims of trafficking and modern-day slavery.

Most parents, like us, want their children to be in schools, but low wages for their parents are a good reason they are not. Our corporations need to be ever more vigilant around human exploitation in their supply chain. Amid the opaque relationships between corporations, contractors, and subcontractors, our retailers must work to insure that children have the gift of childhood. While they are trying to overcome child labor, it’s clear the problem persists.

As we gather around the Christmas tree in coming days, please, take a moment to recall those children in the supply chain who may have labored to make our Christmas clothes.

Pope Francis directs our gaze at Bangladesh

October 10, 2016

Author: Christopher Cox

Category: Learn

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Pope Francis, who has paid more attention than most to Bangladesh, is in the process of directing Catholics’ and the world’s gaze upon that nation.

Recall that Pope Francis was one world leader who called attention to the disaster at Rana Plaza. Pope Francis, vigilant of religious persecution, also voiced sorrow for the victims of the terrorist attack in Dhaka. Returning from Georgia and Azerbaijan, Pope Francis confirmed that he will visit Bangladesh in 2017. Then, on Sunday, he named Archbishop Patrick D’Rosario, C.S.C. a cardinal. Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country of almost 170 million people, has 350,000 Catholics, or just .2% of the population. It will be the second visit by a Pope to Bangladesh as Saint John Paul II visited in 1986.

The challenges posed in Evangelii Gaudium to go to the peripheries and in Laudato Si’ to care for our common home, many of the great themes of his papacy, are incarnated in Bangladesh. Among issues associated with poverty, the Pope’s visit to Bangladesh in 2017 will likely bring attention to workers’ rights, wages, and workplace safety in garment industry. The church in Bangladesh has done extraordinary work on behalf of the poor, but Pope Francis will bring that great work and the ongoing challenges to the attention of the rest of the world.