The Human Thread

Tag Archives: Stewardship

Five Reasons to be Concerned About Our Clothes

February 02, 2017

Author: editor

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:

Caveat emptor and Christian Stewardship

August 08, 2016

Author: editor

Category: Learn

sweatshops garment industry

It’s an old Latin phrase meaning “buyer beware.” Wikipedia tells us:

The phrase caveat emptor and its use as a disclaimer of warranties arise from the fact that buyers typically have less information about the good or service they are purchasing, while the seller has more information. The quality of this situation is known as ‘information asymmetry’. Defects in the good or service may be hidden from the buyer, and only known to the seller.

One consequence of this notion is that once the buyer and the seller have agreed to the terms of the exchange, the responsibility for any fault or for any harm done by the product lay entirely with the buyer. Similar to items sold “as is,” caveat emptor presupposes that the buyer inspects the item and finds it satisfactory prior to purchase. Certain home purchases and most used car sales fall under this umbrella. If you did not inspect the house thoroughly, better ask around for a good contractor as you will be paying to repair the leaky roof. If you bought a used car “as is” and discover that the lemon needs a new transmission, prepare to pay the mechanic. If you purchase a defective lava lamp at a garage sale, the purchase is final, and you own a fancy new paperweight.

Now, imagine if we extend the limits of caveat emptor more fully into our lives as consumers, such that the consumer assumes responsibility for all the faults and harms in the supply chain for the purchased shirt or blouse. In that instance, we could say that the person who wears garments from H & M assumes responsibility for the 14-year-olds who worked 12-hour days for “for the lowest minimum wage in the world (about $3 a day)” to make the shirt or blouse. It does not seem unreasonable to say that this consumer, under caveat emptor, bears moral responsibility for the purchased product. That same consumer assumes a moral responsibility for the environmental havoc wrought by the reckless discharge of chemicals used in the manufacturing process of the same shirt or blouse for that H & M garment. Having purchased that short or blouse means that I now bear responsibility for a polluted, lifeless river, a child exposed to carcinogens living near the field where the cotton was grown, or the devastating loss of life in a factory tragedy.

Disney label at Rana Plaza

Disney label at Rana Plaza

In classical understandings, there were once three professions: lawyers, physicians, and clergy. To this day, all three have certain privileges enshrined in law. All three were understood as “healing arts.” The clergy healed the soul. The physician healed the body. The lawyer healed the communal relationship. Maxims like caveat emptor aimed to protect, or where broken mend, relationships in the community.

Similarly, our faith suggests that we would do well to heed caveat emptor in this broader sense. If we extend the notion in terms of Christian stewardship, Jesus warned, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt 6:21). We may own the things we buy, but they also begin to own us.  Every purchase we make has moral consequences. Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, said: “Purchasing is always a moral– and not simply economic– act.” Indeed, then, every purchase is caveat emptor, buyer beware, for this has impact on your soul, on your spirituality, on how you relate to God, neighbor, creation, and even that garment worker in some distant land.

We believe as Catholics that being in right-relationship gives true and lasting joy. Being in right-relationship with God, with family, with neighbor, with the garment worker, and even with my enemy is a critical expression of my lived faith. A richer understanding of caveat emptor means that, before I buy, I want to know the locations of supplier factories to enable independent monitoring and verification of conditions for workers. It means that I want workers to receive a living wage, without excessive overtime and with regular safety training. It means that I want to insure that environmental hazards are reduced or eliminated, at home and abroad. And it means that my desire for these things must express itself in action.

Before you purchase, remember: caveat emptor! As consumers we need to overcome that “information asymmetry” with a deeper knowledge of how this purchase impacts our lives as well as the lives of so many others.

Reflections from a Comic Strip: Our Overflowing Closets

August 08, 2016

Author: editor

Category: Assess

Between Friends by Sandra Bell-Lundy

Between Friends by Sandra Bell-Lundy

Often enough, the few short images in a newspaper comic encapsulates enormous wisdom or, at least, raises troubling questions. Today’s comic from Sandra Bell-Lundy’s “Between Friends” artfully raises questions.

The main character in today’s sequence goes from jam-packed closet to jam-packed closet, trying find a place to put away some things. Bell-Lundy underscores what we already know: we have too much stuff. We buy five times more clothing annually today than we did 30 years ago. Realtors advertise walk-in closets. Americans rent storage space for our extra items. Often enough, we may have no idea how many things we have or where to find them. I will confess that I keenly saw my own shortcomings  yesterday as a book arrived, and I realized that I already had a copy of it.

At heart, we might ask ourselves a couple of questions.

What do I own? What owns me?

The questions, derived from the late Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy, the late archbishop of Seattle, also became the title to Dan Conway‘s excellent book: What do I Own and What Owns Me?: A Spirituality of Stewardship. Both Archbishop Murphy and Conway can speak about stewardship much more eloquently than I can, but suffice it to say that our possessions can get in the way of our joyful discipleship is something that came from an even more eminent authority: Jesus. As we heard at Sunday’s liturgy (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C): “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions” (Lk 12:15).

The late comedian George Carlin talks about “My Stuff” (WARNING: the video link has some offensive language). Carlin observes: “That’s all your house is– a place to keep your stuff.” For many of us, our closets are full of things that we do not need, that we will not use, but we retain on the off-chance that it will be useful. It can fairly be said that our “stuff” owns us.

Spoiler alert: Conway believes that, for a Christian, when all is said and done we own nothing because we are possessed wholly and completely by “a good and gracious God.” Life is a gift to be cherished, shared, and given back to God with increase. Conversion and a deepening relationship with God call us to change our relationship with our “stuff.”

What gives me joy?

Organizing consultant and author Marie Kondo asks it in a slightly different manner: “What sparks joy?” in her book Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up. All the other things beyond that are unnecessary. Kondo suggests pulling out every item of clothing that one has and placing it together

Kondo urges for a “once-in-a-lifetime tidying marathon,” piling five categories of material possessions — clothing, books, papers, miscellaneous items and sentimental items, including photos, in that order.  Next, one surveys each item, noting the quantities of each category, seeing that it’s way too much and then holding each item to see if it “sparks joy.” Those that “spark joy” get to stay, and everything  else gets a heartfelt and generous goodbye and then sent out. By the way, anything that was forgotten in a closet or a dresser is automatically discarded as it was forgettable. Kondo concludes that our lives are much more joyful without all the “stuff.”

Everything we buy has an impact that is both global and personal. Our way of purchasing things like clothing, chocolate, coffee, and cell phones also result in immense environmental damage and the trafficking of tens of millions of human persons. In the end, we do not need to buy so much “stuff,” and our lives may well be enhanced by letting go of a lot of “stuff.” And, maybe, little by little, we can be in right relationship with our possessions, our neighbor who makes our “stuff,” and our God.