Patriotic t-shirts

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Dec 5 11:35:14 MST 2001

Village Voice, Week of December 5 - 11, 2001

The Global Economy, as Told Through a Tee
Shirts Off Their Backs
by Alisa Solomon

Retail is a seasonal business, so Ibrahim, a Senegalese immigrant who has
taken to introducing himself as Abraham since September 11, is constantly
adjusting his stock. Lately, his Chelsea establishment—a wobbly folding
table set up on the sidewalk of Sixth Avenue—has been piled high with
gloves, scarves, and knitted polyester hats. The stack of T-shirts changes,
too, as Ibrahim tries to stay a step ahead of demand. Over the last couple
of weeks, sensing how public sentiment has shifted, he has replaced his
inventory of "United We Stand" shirts with "In Memory, FDNY." The 50-50
cotton-polyester blended tops go for $7.50—among the highest-priced items
he sells. "These slowed down now, too," he says of the 9-11 commemorative
apparel. "Customers not so interested anymore." 

True enough, the competitors at a kiosk three blocks north are peddling an
astounding variety of 9-11 T-shirts and baseball caps at fire-sale prices.
Loki, an eighth grader just sprouting a moustache, hands over a
three-color, all-cotton Fruit of the Loom tee for $2, making, he
calculates, a profit of 40 cents. The elaborate design features
gold-outlined numbers—09-11-01—with the twin towers forming the oversized
11, all of it superimposed over a bright American flag. Underneath, gilded
letters in a florid script plead, "God Bless America," and above, red block
printing asserts, "We are the greatest nation in the world, any evil can't
destroy our peace and freedom." 

Two nights after the attack on the World Trade Center, Loki and his dad
stayed up affixing the freshly minted iron-on patterns to dozens of shirts.
Completing production themselves cut costs—at the wholesaler up the street,
Fashion Warehouse (NY) Inc., WTC tees go for $24 per dozen, whereas the
decals and plain tees together averaged $1.60 each. The immigrant
entrepreneurs weren't concerned about the slogans' twisted English—a
language Loki's Hindi-speaking dad doesn't know, in any case. Nor did they
notice that the shirts themselves were "Made in China," "Assembled in
Bangladesh," and "Hecho en El Salvador." 

These pushcart peddlers of the new turn-of-the-century were resolutely
toiling to supply a demand and make an honest buck, navigating the currents
of a thriving underground economy that, they expect, will carry them into
the American dream. Loki, who attributed his mid-day absence from school to
"an Indian festival," offered an additional motivation for selling the 9-11
goods: "We love America. We are patriotic with everyone." 

You don't have to be Marx to see capitalism's contradictions surging from
the surface of a shirt with "God Bless America" on the chest and "Made in
Honduras" on the label. The contradictions only glared more garishly when
President Bush urged us to express our patriotism—and celebrate "our way of
life"—by going shopping. That relatively comfy way of life depends, of
course, on the accessibility—the cheapness—of consumer goods. Even as the
wages of the middle and working classes decline (while the wealthy rake in
ever more riches), we still have to be able to afford fancy sneakers and
trendy clothes, DVDs and MP3s, SUVs and the gas they guzzle. 

About 85 percent of all clothes Americans buy are made overseas, a market
valued at some $260 billion a year, according to the textile and garment
workers union UNITE. The apparel industry, though hardly unique, offers the
baldest example of how companies push consumer prices down—and profits
up—by perpetually decreasing their most controllable cost of production:
labor. According to a National Labor Committee investigation, labor costs
can represent as little as two-tenths of one percent of the $14.89 price
tag on a shirt made in El Salvador. That is, the worker gets three cents. 


Louis Proyect
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