“Where is your shirt made?”

Dr. Perez’s Honors Intro to Sociology class takes steps to reduce the inequalities of the global fast fashion industry

When asked how Victor Perez, a professor in the Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice, shapes the curriculum for classes, he referenced the concept of critical pedagogy – which he describes as, “a style of teaching where topics are examined through a lens of inequality.”  By looking at sociology through this lens Dr. Perez not only takes his students through the various problems brought on by globalization but also teaches them how they can take steps to combat these seemingly irreparable inequalities in their daily lives.

Dr. Perez has been teaching Intro to Sociology for more than 10 years. With his class of Honors students this fall, he analyzed the plight of garment workers abroad: they are paid very little, work in unsafe conditions, do not own or have access to most of the items they produce and are generally unable to meet basic needs because of their situation in a global capitalist economy.

Dr. Perez began this discussion with his students by posing a single question, “Where is your shirt made?” Not to his surprise, none of his students knew. After checking their tags, they realized that most of their clothing was made in countries like India, Bangladesh and Cambodia. This was the first of many lessons on how consumers play a role in the exploitation of garment workers in poorer countries without even realizing it.

“I have always been fascinated by the concept of mass consumption and production,” Dr. Perez says. “I monitor global practices that perpetuate inequality…by examining how wealthy countries affect the economies of poorer countries.”

The fast fashion industry, or the industry of producing and consuming cheap clothing based on the current fashion trends, thrives off the notion that people in developed nations treat clothing as a disposable good. Because wages are set by local economies and not global standards, the fast fashion industry has historically gotten away with not paying their workers fair, living wages. As long as people in developed nations continue to purchase clothing made in developing countries, these workers will continue to be trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Dr. Perez challenged his students to use an enrichment award through the Honors Program to support a company that pays their garment workers a living wage and treats them fairly. Honors faculty members can apply for a Course Enrichment Fund to create alternative experiences in the classroom and promote further learning.

After researching a variety of different companies, the students decided to use these funds to buy shirts from Alta Gracia, a company that pays their workers three times the minimum wage for textile workers in the Dominican Republic. Christina Kelly, one of Dr. Perez’s students, notes that selecting a company was a difficult choice, but in the end the students were happy with their decision.

“We chose Alta Gracia because their positive impact on their worker is more direct,” Kelly says. “They promote job creation, living wages, benefits, and education for the workers and families who make their garments.”

Dr. Perez was pleased to see that his students enjoyed the activity and wore their shirts to class and elsewhere even after the activity was over. Christina Kelly took this assignment to heart and developed a new relationship with clothing:

“I have changed the way I shop after taking Dr. Perez’s sociology class. After learning about minimum wages in various countries…I think more about the conditions in which the clothes I think of purchasing were probably made. I am a more critical consumer, and I try to buy goods that are more timeless in nature; that is, I try not to buy into ‘fast fashion’ trends. That way, I keep the clothes longer, and thus reduce my individual contribution to the heaps of clothing that are eventually transported to poorer countries through organizations like Goodwill & the Salvation Army (yes, most of your donated clothes don’t end up re-selling at your local thrift store!).”

While the issues associated with the globalization of fast fashion will not be remedied over night, Dr. Perez showed his students that taking even the smallest steps, like being more mindful of where your clothing comes from and supporting companies that pay their workers a fair wage, can make a real and positive impact on a global scale.

Feature written by Victoria Dellacava, ’17