Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Laura Ingalls Test

Today I was at Target and I saw something I thought I needed at a price I couldn't pass up: children's jeans for $10. My second grader and kindergartner have both outgrown about half of their wardrobes in this new year. They each have about five pair of school pants left, which are becoming more worn by the day. It makes sense to buy these high enough quality jeans and fill their wardrobe out a little. Yet I put them back and walked away (sadly).

At the same time, I have been reading the Laura Ingalls books--again--this time with my 7-year-old daughter, the one who 'needs' pants. In these books, the narrator repeatedly mentions having only one or two dresses each year, plus an old patched one from the year before to swim and play in. In this context, five pair of school pants, plus skirts, dresses, church clothes, and a drawer of play clothes, seems enough. Even excessive.

In the nineteenth century and before, consumer goods were made by intense labor. Growing cotton is hard on land and hard on workers. It had to be spun into thread and woven into cloth before Mrs. Ingalls spent hours cutting and sewing it into the garment her daughter would wear. The process hasn't changed a lot. We have some mechanization, and we have passed off the labor to the third world, but making garments is still a labor intensive activity.

Here's where the Laura Ingalls test comes in: imagine talking to Mrs. Ingalls and saying that you need to buy new clothing for a child that has five presentable outfits. She seems like a polite type, but she would certainly be surprised if not dismayed. If you are like many American families, you could also imagine telling her that your family is already in debt and that you might even put this purchase on credit as well. One hundred years ago, this would have been viewed as highly irresponsible.

This is an amusing mind game to play whenever you find yourself about to make an impulse buy at any price. Here's a less pleasant one. Picture yourself explaining the situation to a mother in the modern day third world instead. Her government accepted money from a US corporation to kick their family off their ancestral farm land, which is now being destroyed by cotton crops. With nowhere to live, she and her family moved to town, where the only way to survive is to work twelve hour days, seven days a week, in a factory where our $3 t-shirts are made. Even the toddlers. And they barely make enough to out rice and beans on the table once a day. This is the true story of our clothing, repeated over and over in every country you see on a clothing label after "Made In". Would she understand? They don't resent us because of George W. Bush. It goes farther and deeper than that.

This isn't a guilt trip. We aren't going to stop being Americans overnight, and neither will you. Just something to think about. Every decision we make is either supporting a very unfair, unpleasant status quo or helping to create a new one. So, I said no to the jeans. We'll find something fair trade or gently used before next year rolls around, and the kids will make their wardrobe last until then.


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Laura said...

I've read those books (through The Long Winter) with my daughter before. I was amazed that when they moved, everything fit in the back of that small wagon. They didn't move the furniture, since Pa could just make more!