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The holiday-gift moment of truth: ‘Wear’ am I?

After his garment industry world tour, this American can’t see jeans without thinking of Nari in Cambodia, or Christmas boxers without a nod to Arifa in Bangladesh.

By Contributor / December 11, 2008

Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Dhaka, Bangladesh

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You’re never more self-conscious of the muscles in your face than during that moment of truth in holiday gift exchanges. You know the moment: You’re holding up an ugly Christmas sweater for all to see, verbalizing “lovely ... cute ... handsome,” but thinking, “too small ... too big ... too ugly ... garage sale.”

For me, there’s now one more step in the process: checking the “made in” label to see where in our world it was made.
In the past I didn’t care where my clothes were made or who made them. Clothes came from grandmas and aunts, and they just magically appeared under the tree.

But a few Christmases ago while looking at a pile of my favorite clothes, I realized how little I knew about where they were made or who made them. Some of the countries of origin I couldn’t even place on a map. What started as a mild curiosity became an obsession, a worldwide quest, and ultimately my book, “Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories and People that Make Our Clothes.”

I met Amilcar who made my favorite T-shirt in Honduras; Arifa, who made my Christmas boxers in Bangladesh; Dewan and his wife, Zhu Chun, who made my flip-flops in China; and Nari and Ai in Cambodia who make my all-American bluejeans. Now I take a moment to remember the people who make our clothes, the factories in which they work, the families they support, and the reality of their lives.

I’m convinced that the more we know them, the more we’ll care about where our clothes come from, and the more we’ll recognize that our spending habits influence the lives of real people around the world. Please, allow me to introduce you.

• • •

In a garment factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, that fills contracts for companies such as Levi’s and Old Navy, the walls are lined with workbenches outfitted with motorized grinding stones. A young woman picks a pair of jeans from the denim pyramid at her side and starts grinding the cuffs and pockets. She stops to judge the level of fraying and, happy with her job, adds them to a smaller denim pyramid. In a way, this woman is the queen of cool. She applies the imperfections just the way we like them.

She is not a machine. There’s no such thing as a bluejean machine. She has a name, although, I don’t risk asking for it. While it’s OK to inquire about the production of my pants, my management host might not take too kindly to my curiosity about the workers making them.

I follow Kan Chen Chin, the factory’s manager, out of the room, and we enter a vast bluejeanland. He smiles and taps his watch.

“My boss says it is time,” his assistant says.

“Time to go?” I ask. But before she can answer, a voice comes over the speaker, and a thousand workers step from their stations. Club music pounds over crackling speakers. The voice directs calisthenics. Workers stretch their arms, necks, and legs. The voice stops after a few minutes, and the workers get back to making our pants.

If there were a bluejean machine, it probably wouldn’t need a break.

• • •

Across Phnom Penh at the city dump, it’s difficult to distinguish people from trash. Black boots, standing and waiting, look like discarded trash bags. Hands in yellow rubber gloves, picking and sorting, look like slimy banana peels.
A truck approaches and is swarmed by scavengers. They don’t push and shove; they jostle. There is etiquette for everything, even this.