Threadbare: A New Book About Fashion, Sex and Trafficking

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“If the United States isn’t the birthplace of fast fashion, it is certainly its spiritual home and primary beneficiary.” So begins Chapter 1 of Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking, Anne Elizabeth Moore’s book documenting the complex connections of the international apparel trade. But as many of us know, the effects of fast fashion go far beyond American consumers. Our consumption habits have far reaching consequences, and Moore aims to uncover them.

A wealth of research has gone into this book, and Moore tackles the questions that many others are scared – sometimes even unwilling – to take on. What distinguishes Moore’s book from others on similar topics is its presentation; with the help of the women’s comics collective Ladydrawers, the book uses illustrations to help us better understand the complicated, and often ugly, inner workings of the garment industry.

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It is a book about connections, and from fast fashion employees at stores in the United States to garment workers in Cambodia, Moore shows us how one thing is tied to another. Born out of a monthlong comics journalism series intended to help readers understand the international apparel trade, the book is a reminder that we are all complicit, and that even the best intentions can often do absolutely nothing to deal with the root cause of the problem.

For those who are well versed on the environmental and social ramifications of the global apparel industry, Moore’s book also deals with – in detail – the complexities, and often misunderstandings, of human trafficking. As Moore writes, “Unfortunately, what anti- human trafficking NGOs really do is instead quite damaging: they normalize existent labor opportunities for women, no matter how low the pay, dangerous the conditions, or abusive an environment they foster. And they shame women who reject such jobs. The true impact of the U.S.-led human trafficking movement around the world is unfortunately bleak.” Around one seventh of women in the world work in the garment industry, an industry that has been built on keeping wages low and working conditions dismal. In turn, women are kept in poverty around the globe, whilst organizations continue to fund under the auspice that they are helping them.

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This “the wrongheaded idea that we can save women and girls by installing them in the garment industry —which really only perpetuates entrenched, gender-based poverty for generations,” writes Moore.

We caught up with Moore and one of Threadbare’s illustrators Delia Jean to learn more about the book, the apparel industry, and how we can do more than just have a conversation and actually work to make real change.

When it comes to the connections between women’s rights and the apparel industry, do you think that we are having this conversation enough?

Anne Elizabeth Moore: Well this book is about the connections between the garment grand and anti-trafficking conversation, and I’m the writer that broke that story in the original monthly strips on Truthout (and then again in Salon), and since the book’s not out yet, I can guarantee the conversation has been pretty small so far. But I am personally not a writer who cares much about “the conversation.” What matters here are the massively complex policies that keep women’s labor in developing nations cheap but their alternative employment options limited, which then spurs some  really wonky measures when women don’t find those jobs satisfying, as very, very few of us would if we had to do them. That those wonky measures—anti-trafficking initiatives—end up damaging women around the world should appall us. Conversation isn’t appropriate. Changing the policies that let it happen is.

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What are some of the main misconceptions about the garment industry that you think the average consumer has?

Delia Jean: I think a misconception consumers have is that sweatshops are an ugly thing of the past, and certainly nothing American government would condone. So when it comes to low prices, it is easy to view the savings as nothing but a boon to the consumer, when in fact the reality is much more complex and troubling.

What about for trafficking?

AEM: Well, let’s be clear that we’re talking about human trafficking. Drug trafficking, arms trafficking—the sale of illegal goods is a totally different thing than what we’re talking about when we talk about trafficking. Real human trafficking does happen, but it happens far more in what we call the labor field than the sex field—and the fact that we even perceive a difference between labor and sex work in 2016 is noteworthy, since they are both actions performed in exchange for wages. That one is criminalized—the one that women and transfolk happen have most frequently available to them—is interesting too, no?

And we can start there. A big misconception about human trafficking is that it’s mostly about sex slavery, which in their estimation includes all prostitution. That’s a myth perpetrated by forces who endeavor to pass laws all over the world that restrict women’s economic and migratory freedoms. Most human trafficking is in labor, particularly in the agricultural and fishing industries. There are a ton more, too, but I’ve written about them more comprehensively elsewhere. Relevant to this book, however, the second biggest misconception about human trafficking is that the money you donate to NGOs claiming to “free sex slaves” helps women pursue the futures they want in any way. In fact, that money occasionally goes toward paying them a percentage of what they’d make in the garment industry—usually an industry they left in the first place, and often for reasons of sexual harassment or abuse—”training” them to work in a field that rarely pays more than half of what it takes to survive.

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Have your own shopping habits changed in the course of researching and writing the book?

DJ: Yes. Prior to working on this book, I have shopped fast fashion retail and enjoyed being able to afford a bagful of new clothes, despite the nagging feeling that the low cost must be too good to be true. It’s easy to dismiss discomfort when you can catch a buzz buying a new wardrobe, telling yourself that these clothes were put here for me to buy, everyone buys them, so it must be fine.

Working on the book has been an opportunity to take that nagging sense of discomfort, and drawn it out. This book has required me to envision the consequences of those unconscious choices, and attempt to frame the issues in a way that people can understand, panel by panel. In attempting to help others understand, I have gained awareness myself, and I’ll never set foot in one of those stores again. I feel fortunate to live in a major city where I have been able to discover a number of independent designers and retailers that handcraft garments locally. I’m much better for it- my personal style feels more deliberate and authentic, and even though I have to save more for a shopping spree, my money is supporting something honest. Also, the clothes are higher quality and they last longer, so I am saving more in the long run. It’s been an interesting journey.

Trafficking and sex worker rights is a big, and sensitive, topic. How have you chosen to tackle that and what methods do you take to ensure that you provide balanced reporting?

AEM: What I do as a reporter is talk to the people affected. It’s notable that in the three years I’ve focused on human trafficking—and traveled the globe doing this work—I’ve only had one person write to me to say, “I was trafficked, this is how the system worked for me.” (It’s even more important to keep in mind that, in her case, the system failed her.) So I know that it happens, but I also know that it does not happen nearly at the rate that anti- trafficking organizations claim that it does. So with that in mind, and with listening as my primary reporting technique, it becomes a bit easier to sort through the wave of biased information people put out there. And, you know, their jobs and livelihoods are at stake too. It’s hard to be sensitive to the folks on the wrong side of history, but they’re often women trying to get by as well.

These are big topics – how do you think that comics and illustration helps you to address them as opposed to just straight text?

DJ: These are big topics that affect a big audience. Addressing heavy, complex issues in a dense volume of text may obfuscate the content or limit the number of people willing to engage with it. I believe utilizing comics and illustration makes the material more compelling to a broader audience, therefore more people are willing to explore the subject matter. However, drawing out the issues also engages more parts of the brain with the material, allowing for a reading experience that is unique to comics.

You advocate for people to take part initiatives that help to ensure a living wage for women. Do you have any organizations you would like to mention that are good resources for that?

We’re big fans of SWOP, the Sex Workers Outreach Project.

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