Almost a decade ago, I was inspired by Naomi Klein's book No Logo to pull the clothes out of my closet and dresser drawers and find out who made them, where, under what conditions, and for how much. All in pursuit of one bigger question: why?
I ended up writing a book in 2003 inspired by this experience, called Consuming Faith. My basic argument was that the contemporary culture of corporate branding had positioned itself to fight for the identity and performance of youth and young adult life in the West (and in Westernizing societies) in ways that traded on the mirroring of spiritual disciplines (in other words, that give in varying degrees what Christianity and other religions had wanted to provide for their adherents), and that depended on dominant and politically recalcitrant Christian theologies for their violent progress; and moreover, that theologically speaking, faith in God can be understood as generosity in and courage for relationship, including the economic relationships that put us in debt for our well-being, and our own "spirituality," to those global "others" whom we may never meet but who make our "stuff."
The only thing new about that argument was to try to say it well in a short book, and in a way that would bear praxis-force (in theologically-interested circles) for both academic and educated lay readers in the seeking of truth and furthering of justice, in the small ways a book can, in these matters.
(In the preface to the paperback edition of the book, a few years later, I recanted some of the substructure of the argument, insofar as it relied on essentialized and finally ahistorical understandings of Christ and of scripture; this rethinking led me to write a followup book, Witness to Dispossession, to make more clear what can be said of Christianity and its capacity for prophetic speech and action today.)
This leads me to my most recent reading: an essay by Ken Silverstein in the January 2010 issue of Harper's Magazine, titled "Shopping for Sweat: The Human Cost of a Two-Dollar T-Shirt ." Silverstein faked his way into Cambodian apparel factories under the ruse of working for a high-end T-shirt company. What he found will surprise no one, but still needs to be said, and illustrated: that after more than a decade of high-profile reports and increased public consciousness about sweat labor's contribution to the products that sustain life in the United States, we are not yet in a new age of ethics. Toward the end of his report, he notes that "[L]abor costs in the developing world are so low that the industry could still provide Americans with very cheap clothing while paying its workers significantly more, raising millions of people out of poverty."
It made me think: Why not pay $31 or $32 instead of $30 for that concert T-shirt? And I began to wonder all over again where the rock-related shirts I wear are produced. How are these elements of rock culture in my life stringing me up in relation to the young women around the world who make these goods, they who are the true material girls, the real young women whose labor helps make possible the material on which so much of rock culture depends?
So I pulled out the first five T-shirts having to do with rock culture, and here is what I found:
The Entrance Band: Alternative Apparel, made in Vietnam
Rush: Gildan Activewear, made in Mexico
Rickenbacker (maker of guitars): Hanes, made in Nicaragua
Fender (maker of guitars): Da Vinci, made in Mexico
Zildjian (maker of cymbals): Art Unlimited Sportswear, Guatemala
If you, too, wear clothes, I invite you to check for yourself the websites of each of these manufacturers or those found on the tags of the clothing that you yourself have come to like. And remember that even when you can find reference to a labor/sourcing policy from a particular apparel company (some companies still do not list them, and when they do, they are almost always exercises in public-relations), there are typical weasel-phrases that sound nice but cover many sins, including: paying "at least the country's minimum wage" (no reference to a living wage); "never asking more overtime than legally allowed" (which can be excessive and unfairly recompensed); obeying "all relevant environmental laws" (when they exist); no "forced labor" (there are many ways in which people are forced to work in substandard or destructive arrangements); and you will no doubt find many more.
My listing of the above products and origins is public information, printed on the shirt tags. I list it as a way of reminding myself and readers  of the complex economic relationships in which we find ourselves by participating in most clothing cultures today;  of the nearly total absence of the picturing of these economic relationships in clothing culture itself, including the rock cultures from which the above products came.
As a musician and fan, I can tell you that the last thing these instruments and bands are having you think, the last thing one is trained to think of, is the hand that makes the symbols through which, in some small and finite way, we seek to define our freedom.
Really it is about the hand as symbol: the present virtuosic hand of the instructional videos and live shows, and the absent hands of the Vietnamese, Mexican, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan women.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
(cross-posted at Rock and Theology )