To love our neighbor is to think of the people behind our clothes
Every Christian knows the great commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27). And in the next verse, the lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” It’s a question that matters when we think about all aspects of our lives, including what we wear. Clothing is a ubiquitous commodity that almost every culture in the world shares in one form or another. One of first inventions of mankindit has grown into a massive industry, with pre-pandemic estimates of around $2.5 trillion in global annual revenue.
Yet we often have no idea of the hands that actually sewed the seams of our clothes or the land that produced the cotton that goes into even basic garments like t-shirts. In the cotton industry alone, more than 20 millions cotton farmers and workers in gins, spinning mills and garments produce the clothes we wear.
It’s not just a global problem – it’s a theological problem. As followers of Jesus, we aim to keep the two great commandments, to love God and to love our neighbour, with all of our lives. But who is our neighbor when it comes to clothing? Garment workers are the engine of the global garment system. Yet they are often miserably paid for their skilled labor and forced to work in dangerous conditions. If we can’t take care of the people who produce our clothes, can we really say we love our neighbour?
In many ways, we live in a global village. Through our garments, we are connected to the cotton fields, the wool-producing sheep, the farmers harvesting these raw materials, and the many hands that turn them into fibers, textiles, then dye, cut, sew, finish, and ship the final product. . clothes to the stores where we buy.
In this kind of webbed world, our neighbor is the one who is both far and near. According to theologian Larry Rasmussenour neighbor is, “the articulated form of creation to which justice is due, as the full possible flowering of creation. To exist in relation to each other is our primary realityand in the Christian lens, our neighbor is a person who is, “above all, beloved (by God).”
As followers of Jesus, not only are we directed in love towards our neighbors, but we are also called to action. In Luke 10, Jesus defines the neighbor “not in a theological sense, but in a life situation.” It’s not the person who just believed he was a neighbor – he was the person who, in the words of liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, “showed themselves neighbors of man.”
Theologian Sharon Ringe formulates it as follows: “Nobody can simply have a neighbor; you also have to be a neighbor. … The story simply presents itself as another challenge to the transformation of daily life and business as usual, which is at the heart of the practice of discipleship.
This mandate of our Christian faith is in stark contrast to the current situation of many garment workers. Current research shows that no major brand can prove that all workers in their supply chain earn a living wage, whether it’s fast fashion or luxury apparel. And increasing workers’ wages by just $100 a week (about what is needed to achieve a living wage in Bangladesh and India), would immediately reduce 65.3 million metric tons of CO2 from the global economy, according to new research. Paying workers more wouldn’t break the brand bank either. A study shows that a living wage in India, for example, adds only 20 cents to the price of a t-shirt.
In addition, about 80% of garment makers in factories are women, compounding the labor violations and gender discrimination these workers face with forced overtime, lack of basic fire and building safety, lack of maternity leave and dangerous journeys to work. And the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these conditions. A new study of Traidcraft Exchange and the The Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Center shows that in Bangladesh, Covid-19 has exacerbated women’s existing vulnerabilities, including financial and housing insecurity, and increased exploitative practices such as abuse sexual and verbal abuse, mostly from line supervisors pushing garment manufacturers to work faster to meet unrealistic production targets. While many big brands have returned to profitability after the initial hit of the pandemic, their employees are still feeling the lingering effects.
To love clothing manufacturers as our neighbors, we must stop being indifferent to their needs and circumstances. After all, “the opposite of loving your neighbor is not always hating him, but simply being indifferent to him” writes Jim Wallis. We must advocate for systemic change and protections for workers. Movements like this are gaining momentum. In California, the history Garment Workers Protection Act passed in 2021, which ended the piece rate system for factories producing goods in Los Angeles and holds brands accountable for wage violations in their supply chains.
Small independent brands often lead by example. My own brand, Arranged, partners with a women-owned and worker-led clothing collective in Manila to bring our t-shirts to life. As a citizen, support local manufacturing, small batch production, conscious brands as often as possible or turn to thrift and resale. By consuming less and less consciously and standing up for the rights of garment workers, we can live our faith with integrity.
In his last sermonDr King explained the Good Samaritan story saying: “I can imagine that the first question asked by the priest and the Levite was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Then the Good Samaritan passed by, and by the very nature of his worry turned the question around: “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” Let’s follow the example of the Good Samaritan and defend our hidden neighbors, the garment workers.
Lizzy Case is a writer, theologian and founder of Arranged, a liberating, people-focused, planet-focused Christian clothing brand. She currently lives in Southern California.