Have you ever wondered where your clothes are made or about the people who make them? Do you realize that the majority of the clothes bought in the U.S. do not come from this country? Our next interview is with author and friend, Kelsey Timmerman, who traveled around the world following his obsession of discovering who makes the clothes he wears. All of us at Rule29 love the concept of Kelsey’s book Where Are You Wearing. And after you meet him, a truly simple midwest guy looking to satisfy an overwhelming curiosity, you get the sense that he is a genuine article – check out his Flickr set for more proof. Enjoy this interview, one of the funniest we have had, and let us know what you think or “where you are wearing” today.
1: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
There wasn’t an epiphany or anything, just small little moments:
I won an award in 4th grade for a story about flying shoes.
In college I had a blast on an assignment for Religion 101 about Buddhism. I titled the paper “Quantum Leap of Faith” and it was largely based on the show “Quantum Leap” starring Scott Bakula. I got a C-.
I guess what really sealed the deal was when I started penning a column about some of my travels and realized that I could take folks around the world 800 words at a time.
2: Where did you go to school?
Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. (Miami was a school before Florida was a state! Eat it Florida!)
3: Did you have a teacher that really made an impact on you?
Fortunately, I’ve had a couple.
At Miami, Dr. Jonathan Levy, my geology professor, would treat his classes to pictures from his travels around the world to make certain points. I appreciated having a professor that understood exactly what he was seeing, but was still in awe of it.
Mrs. Dixie Marshall, my high school English teacher, was kind enough to put up with me. She eventually talked me into reading the non-Cliff’s Notes version of “The Tale of Two Cities” and is now one of my most valued proofreaders. If you see some grammatical mistakes in my answers here, blame the fact that I didn’t have Mrs. Marshall proof them.
4: What was your first big successful article or writing piece?
When the Christian Science Monitor published my story on teaching an island-village in Honduras how to play baseball, doors really started to open.
5: What was the initial inspiration for Where am I wearing?
I had this T-shirt with Tattoo from the TV show Fantasy Island on it. Remember Tattoo? He was the short fella that would holler, “De Plane! De Plane!” Anyhow, around Tattoo’s smiling mug was the phrase, “Follow Me To My Tropical Paradise.” I was curious where Tattoo’s tropical paradise was. I looked at the tag; it read Made in Honduras.
I wondered: What if I went to the countries where my clothes were made and met the people who made them? Where was I wearing?
I thought I should know a little something about the people who make my clothes. I piled up my favorite items of clothing on the floor, checked the tags, and hit the road.
6: How long did it take you to turn your inspiration into an actual trip?
In 2004 I started thinking about going the places where my clothes were made. In 2005 I went to Honduras where the quest almost ended before it began. In 2007 it became an obsession. I spent a month each in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China before returning home, getting married, and visiting a garment factory in New York on my honeymoon. I still owe my wife a proper honeymoon.
7: What did your friends or family think about the idea?
It varied. Most were outwardly supportive, but I know deep down they were thinking, “Who the heck goes to Bangladesh because their underwear was made there?” There’s a fine line between published author and weird uncle.
My wife, Annie, is a saint.
8: Boxers or Briefs?
What are we going to be doing? See, I have a problem with that question. It really depends on the level of physical activity.
9: What was your expectation for your first trip?
Go jungle hiking and SCUBA diving and spend a day or two tracking down the factory that made my T-shirt. When I met Amilcar a worker at the factory, I wasn’t expecting that I would be unable to ask him the questions I wanted to know: does this job provide a better life for your family? How much are you paid? Are you happy? Deep down I think I didn’t want to know.
10: What was the biggest lesson or key learning from that initial trek?
Sometimes it’s easier to not know a thing. You know, the whole ignorance is bliss theory?
When I got home, my experience with Amilcar haunted me. I became absolutely obsessed with clothing tags and wondering what life was like for the people who make my clothes.
I learned that the realities of the world are harsh, but I wanted to know.
11: Where have you been since your big excursion, besides Geneva?
I’ve been pretty busy tackling life’s milestones: marriage, authorhood, fatherhood. I’ve been to Kentucky waterskiing, Utah for my brother’s wedding, but that’s about it.
12: What countries or areas were the most surprising to you?
I was blown away by the hospitality I received in Bangladesh.
13: What country of the ones that you visited needs the most change or regulation?
China. The laws are in place; it’s just that they are completely ignored. Workers aren’t supposed to work more than 44 hours in a single week. The workers I met worked more than 100 hours a week.
14: What was one of your funniest travel experiences?
In Bangladesh I went to a rock concert and a guy came up to me and asked if he could get his picture taken with me. I thought that was kind of weird but I obliged. After that, everyone whipped out their camera phones and we’re trying to get a photo with me. Eventually, the photo shoot turned into a sort of mosh pit. I slithered out and left the concert. I was too famous to stay.
15: Most scary?
Walking through mine fields in Cambodia.
16: What was/is your hope for this book and message?
That readers relate to the workers I introduce in the book and become more engaged with the the brands and stores they buy from.
17: What has been some of the positive feedback been?
Here’s one of my favorite emails that I’ve received. This one is from a student at Rutgers: “I am a college junior at Rutgers and I just read your book for a research paper. . . . I have long struggled to cope with the realities under which my clothes were made. I really appreciated getting to see the personal side of this issue, completely stripped of politics. Where I Am Wearing? affected me in a profound way.”
The Financial Times called me an ignorant moron, but they are bunch of know-it-all jackasses, so it didn’t really phase me at all.
19: Any corporate lash back?
If I had a nickel for every time someone at a corporation said, “I’m not sure I feel comfortable talking to you,” I’d be rich. Most corporations don’t want to have a grownup dialog about the fact our clothes are made elsewhere by people who make less in a year than we spend on donuts.
I’m trying my best to get the dialog going, though. Every week I examine one item of clothing (where it was made, who made it, how socially and environmentally responsible the company is) and report my findings on my blog.
20: Which brands do you feel are doing the best?
I’m all for any brand that at acknowledges their social and environmental impacts of their business. Patagonia is doing some pretty neat things, including the Footprint Chronicles.
21: What do you think would surprise most Americans about where their clothes are made?
There are very few machines involved in the process of making our clothes, just lots of people. Eighty-five people have a hand in sewing together a single pair of jeans and that doesn’t count the guy who sandblasts the jeans or the girls who fray them by hand.
22: What is the average daily or monthly range for the people that make our clothes?
23: How can we be a part of change?
Check the tag! Stop whatever you are doing right now, grab your shirt collar, and see where you are wearing. Take a moment to think what life is like in that country. If you don’t know, find out. Try to find brands that match your beliefs. If you’re favorite brand isn’t quite where you would like them to be socially or environmentally, let them know. Give them some encouragement to do better.
24: What are the positives of our use of foreign labor workers?
In places like Bangladesh and Cambodia the garment sector alone counts for 75% of exports. If those jobs weren’t there, millions of people would be without jobs. These aren’t great jobs and, in fact, there is a lot of room for improvement, but often the options in developing countries are pretty limited.
The workers I met sacrifice a lot to have their job. One persons sweatshop is another’s opportunity.
25: What’s next?
This fall and spring, I’m doing a lot of speaking. After that I have a few book ideas I would like to get to.
26: What is your best travel tip?
Make friends with a local. They know where to have fun, where to eat, and where to avoid.
27: Favorite childhood superhero?
28: Favorite travel food in your backpack?
Beef Jerky. Stuff some in the bottom of your pack and forget about it. Years later if you’re far from civilization with hunger pains, you’ll reach down into your pack and pull out a few pieces. It will taste better than anything you’ve ever eaten.
29: What does design mean to you?
To me, design means that someone takes ideas I never knew I had, lays them out in a shiny fashion, and then I take credit for it.
Have you seen my website? Oh, you have. You love it! Thanks, I designed it.