"If I define my neighbor as the one I must
go out to look for, on the highways and byways,
in the factories and slums, on the farms and in the mines,
then my world changes."
Peruvian theologian and founder of Liberation Theology
Last April, I met a 24-year-old Bangladeshi seamstress who broke her arm and leg jumping from an upper-story factory window to escape a fire. Sumi Abedin worked at Tazreen Fashions in Dhaka, sewing 4,000 seams a day for major Western clothing brands. Management kept the exits locked to prevent theft; when the building caught fire in November 2012, workers were trapped inside. As smoke filled the building, Abedin and a coworker leaped from the window. "I thought if I saved my body from burning, my parents would be able to identify it," Abedin said. She survived the fall; her companion did not. That day, 112 workers died.
I asked Abedin, who was in the United States campaigning for safety improvements in major brands' supply chains, how it felt to see Americans up close, buying $50 garments made in Bangladesh when that country’s minimum wage is $38 a month.
She smiled and slightly shook her head. She had no words.
Just hours later, the Rana Plaza factory outside Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers. They had noticed an ominous crack in the building but were ordered to work anyway. Fear of losing their livelihoods outweighed the risk of losing their lives.
We all know our stuff doesn't grow on store shelves, but the images from Bangladesh as we've worked on this issue have lent a sobering urgency to the question of where our stuff comes from, and who pays its price.
We have more access to cheap stuff than ever, but much of it has been drained of meaning. We casually toss what we're tired of and rarely know who made it. Factories have almost disappeared from our communities; we no longer buy stuff made by our friends and neighbors. When our things come from all over the world—mined in the Congo, picked in Uzbekistan, woven in India—we're less likely to see and understand the consequences of our consumption.
Some of the same policies that have helped shift production overseas have also contributed to the emptying of the global countryside. More than half the world's bursting population now lives in cities—often in extreme poverty—and most of us are just beginning to understand the related crises of forced and child labor, human trafficking, sweatshop exploitation, and all of their attendant ills.
So our system, like Rana Plaza, is cracked. And the longer we refuse to see its dysfunction, the greater the human cost will be. Of course, many of us know this. We try to be mindful of our consumption and waste, and we buy fair trade when we can. But when we act on our own, we hardly make a dent.
In this issue, we look at how we can rehumanize our relationships with those who make our stuff. How can we, together, shape a culture that honors and protects those to whom our stuff connects us—especially those at the bottom? And how do we heal the harm this fixation on stuff does to our well-being?
The good news is, people all over the world have already started answering these questions. Business owners, workers, buyers, and activists are bringing humanity back into stuff through innovations like direct trade with farmers, less destructive electronics design, worker-led factory monitoring, and creating stuff that has meaning again.
Five years ago, when I started Human Goods, my blog on these issues, few people even knew what human trafficking was. Today, it seems most do—because countless activists, leaders, survivors, and communities have worked to bring its human cost to light.
If, as Gustavo Gutierrez suggests, we radically redefine our neighbors as those who, like Sumi Abedin, are removed, obscured, and easily discarded, it expands not only our sense of accountability, but also of possibility.
We can do stuff differently.