Blue Jean Redemption: Fair Trade and the Axis of Evil

The other day I carried out what is a time-honored tradition with Samuel. We went shopping. We have been doing this since 2012 when Samuel lived in Freiburg, me in Worcester—Samuel now lives in Münster.

The tradition started pretty innocently. I needed clothing and had not found anything satisfactory at my haunts in the US. I refused to go to “The Gap Collection”—Old Navy, The Gap, or Banana Republic. H & M had not yet come to the US, or at least anywhere near me. I would have refused their invitation, too. I had been writing about social justice and sustainability for ten years, tried to integrate it into my life through my political action and my writing. I had decided that it was time to do it in terms of my consumption habits. I already had a basic wardrobe—against what the shops want me to do, I still shop seasonally or annually. In 2012, I placed on myself a sweatshop ban. Everything I bought had to be sweatshop free and practice basic environmental standards.

About five years before, I had tried to implement this policy when living in Bangkok. I bought clothes from Bobby the Bangkok tailor. This guy doesn’t run a tourist operation in Pat Pong or near Kao San Road. He’s legit. He makes clothes for John Kerry, the former US Secretary of State, and many other personalities and dignitaries. Despite the free suits, but very costly cocktails at his store, given his clientele, I figured Bobby would have good labor practices. I was disappointed to find out that a ‘sweatshop free’ tailor in Bangkok is like finding an emission free Tuk Tuk. Similarly, I tried high end shopping services, like Trunk Club, explaining that I wanted fair trade clothes. In return I got American companies who bought nice material and sent it to China for manufacturing. And, without fail, they wanted me to look like their catalogue, which didn’t interest me either. The point is that I don’t buy a lot and I am interested in paying the full price of my clothes, not the capitalmeister’s price provided on the surplus value of the environment or the marginalized.

Back to Freiburg…

Samuel took me to ‘Zünd Stoff’ a simple outfit that sells spiffy clothes for hipsters and wanna-be-cool middle-agers like me. You get clothes by ‘Revolution’ of Hamburg, ‘Knowledge’ of Copenhagen, ‘Armed Angels’ of Cologne, and ‘Nudie’ of Stockholm, Sweden. I became a fan boy of Nudie jeans. I had never owned jeans that ‘lycra’ woven into them. They made skinny jeans fun to wear, not like the ball busting APC raw denim that I was used to. And, unlike APC, I didn’t have to worry about where they came from. Each pair of Nudies has imprinted on the inside their solemn promise that these jeans come from organic cotton and are happily made by beautiful, smiling Swedes. Plus I am old enough to remember the American singer Gram Parsons popularized the Nudie Suit made by Nudie Cohn, the LA icon.

Since then I visited Freiburg a couple times a year and visited this shop nearly every time. I fell in love with the brand Armed Angels. I liked that they came from the unpretentious German city of Cologne, were hard to find, and, oh, so soft. They held up well, too. In fact, I have taken them to my tailor to be repaired several times. Great jeans, eh? They were ethically made and I contributed to my local economy, too.

Yesterday, Samuel and I contributed to our time honored tradition of shopping by going to Zünd Stoff’s ‘sister store’ in Münster. The store is a little bigger, the staff, still precious, was a little less interested in speaking English (Münster isn’t the tourist destination that Freiburg is), but the clothes, oh, the clothes. They were there in force and the shop was set up similarly so we could go in and do our thing without the anxiety associated with uncertainty.

Since I started buying at these stores in 2012, my middle agedness has advanced, and so has my mid-section. My 30” inseam has become 32”. I tried on one pair of ‘Lean Deans’ with a 32” inseam and ended up buying ‘Grim Tims’. I brought them to Samuel’s home (see photo 2), one size fits across styles, right? Rookie mistake: I didn’t try them on at the store. I had removed the tag from the jeans, another rookie mistake, and tried them on. I needed a 33” inseam—and no, I hadn’t eaten in between the store and arriving home. After installing handle bar tape on Samuel’s street slut we loaded up the jeans and took them back for an exchange.

Slavoj Žižek reminds us that even when we have the best intentions if they are conceived of in an immoral context they will be bastardized. This rings true in this story. Now, you might think that, through my ethical consumption that I am trying to buy redemption. Maybe I am trying to atone from that fourth transatlantic flight of the year. You would be right, but that isn’t the point of my story. See Žižek’s presentation to the Royal Society for the Arts several years back for a nice treatment of this position. No, it’s capital that’s seeking redemption here. But, because this erstwhile convivial relationship was founded in the belly of the beast, it is destined to portend evil.

In front of the store, Samuel kindly got off of his bike and went to the store for the return, while I listened to one of the many Catholic musical ensembles festooning Münster over the coming weeks. The offering was hoaky German folk music with a religious bent. I struggled to find redemption in the suffering I inflicted on myself as these people massaged my eardrums with rough grit sandpaper. Samuel ventured, unknowingly, into the belly of the beast with my ‘too skinny’ jeans. Just when my ears started really bleeding Samuel finally returned with the jeans in my size.

What had taken him so long?

Samuel explained to me that the staff flogged him with the jeans because the inventory tag, which, to the uninitiated, is disguised as a size tag, was removed from the jeans. During his beating Samuel was able to explain to the staff that “the American didn’t even have scissors”, but the tag was gone, see above; and the truth is that I used my teeth to get the damn thing off. They must’ve taken pity on him because the beating ceased they exchanged the jeans. Shouldn’t fair trade extend through the whole transaction, not just the part they can make money off of?


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