I will shortly be visited here at home by a camera crew from an Indian cable TV station. Apparently my story about how you can use eBay to purchase bespoke salwar kameez from Indian and Pakistani tailors got into circulation in e-mail, and so wound up in the hands of a reporter for this station.
Yours for global disintermediation—
Okay, that was fun.
They’ve left now: Vitek Rai, the Correspondent/Producer, and Sulekh, his Supervising Producer. (That’s what their business cards say. To me, they looked a lot like a reporter and a cameraman. But what do I know? It’s their industry.)I was mistaken about their provenance. Easiest just to quote the original e-mail:
I’m writing with reference to a mail circulated by SAJA (South Asian Journalists Association) sometime late last year, about your experiences buying salwar kameezes over ebay from producer in South Asia.As Vitek Rai explained it to me, South Asia World does television for the South Indian diaspora.
I’m working for a new television channel, South Asia World, which is available on satellite TV here in the US and also in the UK. In India, we partner with CNBC to provide business programming but on South Asia World, we also produce feature stories related to South Asia. I’m interested in producing a story on the ebay salwar kameez sale, and would love to interview you, since it was through your weblog that I found it.
It was a beautiful evening, so we did some talking sitting out on the front stoop, then moved inside when it got too dark and cold to continue out there. I had the laptop set up on our dinner table, with a bunch of eBay “salwar kameez, any size” tabs already in place. I poured coffee and showed them.
I don’t know whether this part got taped, but to my mind the most pertinent stuff I said was when we were first talking, out on the stoop.
Here’s one thing I know: For decades, now, I’ve been seeing third-world imported handicrafts—obviously piecework—priced so low that I flinched at the thought of what their creators received per hour. In Toronto in 1983, I saw fine hand-tatted placemats from China selling for $4.00 Canadian. Smaller round doilies, just as fine, were $2.00. In the fancy tchotchke shops along Park Avenue South, the ones that cater to tourists, one of their staple bits of inventory is the full-size tablecloth worked in multicolored applique plus lace-crochet inserts, with six matching napkins. I don’t know what the price for that is now, but for the longest time it was $19.99 the set. Entire tablecloths made of Battenberg lace sell for more, but not enough more.
I’ve also flinched at the waste I sometimes see in the export-handicrafts market. Off-the-rack clothing manufacture inherently has some waste built in, but this is different. The example that has stuck in my mind was a bin of handknit sweaters that were going for a couple of bucks each in an Odd Lots. I believe they were made in Turkey. The knitting was beautiful—classic lacework patterns—but the yarn was multi-stranded cheap cotton string, garment-dyed using cheap harsh colorants, and the sizing was waaaaay too small for the American market. (That was back when I took a size 4, and the sweaters were still too small.) It hurts to see a handknit sweater knocked down to less than the price of the string it was made of.
(I could go on about this for a long time. Textiles are a traditional way to concentrate and display other people’s labor. Imperialism can be defined as a system for obtaining other people’s Cool Stuff for less than you ought to pay for it.)
And then there’s the normal waste of off-the-rack clothing. Where the maker and the customer can’t deal directly, the maker is working by guess and by golly: what do retail customers actually want? in what color? in what size? They’re also at the (hah) mercy of middlemen, who get a bigger cut of the eventual purchase price than the workers ever will.
When you’re working for the mass market, you have to have mass quantities. They have to be made to certain standards, in a certain range of sizes. It’s the industrial-size package deal. Small shops can’t get into that market, unless they want to produce to order, for a bid-down price.
Something else I know is that India and Pakistan have huge textile industries. They’d love to sell more goods into our markets—Pakistan especially. Unfortunately, they’re blocked from doing so by a system of quotas and tariffs.
Something I didn’t get to say, not that it would have come as a surprise to anyone: those tariffs are designed to prop up the dying but politically powerful American textile industry. The guys who run it are the successors of the mill owners who impoverished industrial New England by picking up and moving to the South, where labor was cheap, workers were cowed, and health and safety regulations were more decorative than functional. When you see spokesmen for the Southern textile mills spluttering about how the worst damage to their industry hasn’t been done by competitors in India or China, but rather by Sally Fields playing Norma Rae in a movie that portrayed J. P. Stevens as a bunch of union-busting bad guys (which they are), you know what kind of mindset you’re dealing with.
Sure, Georgie-boy would in theory like a better relationship with Pakistan; but Southern mill owners are his friends.
Well, screw that. Screw the lot of it. There’s nothing about ground-level clothing production that requires large-scale industrial organization. That’s an artifact of the distribution system. Spinning and weaving are best produced by mechanized systems, and processes like making running shoes takes specialized equipment, but garments are made by one person sitting at a sewing machine.
(We’re now re-entering the zone of Things I Got To Say.)
The internet, in this case eBay, lets me do business directly with shops in India and Pakistan and Bangladesh. The barriers to doing business are so low that very small operations can post their offers on eBay and see who bites. There are various service firms that will intermediate the cash transaction. The most notable of these is PayPal, but they’ve hardly cornered that market: it’s a competitive field. International delivery companies are likewise competitive.Here’s what a clothing shop in South Asia needs in order to sell bespoke clothing on eBay:
1. Items to sell. If they’re making salwar kameez, that’s two or three pieces of coordinated fabric draped around a mannequin.It’s not as easy as getting into the car-window squeegee business, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than setting up to mass-produce clothing for the export wholesale trade.
3. A digital camera, or the use of a digital camera, to take digital pictures of the offerings.
3. A sewing machine, and the ability to make a salwar kameez to order.
4. An account with Paypal, Bidpay, or some other financial intermediary.
5. An account with a shipping service.
6. An account on eBay.
7. A purchaser somewhere in the world who wants the salwar kameez they’re offering to sell.
If textile workers in India and Pakistan can get direct input from their potential customers instead of wasting output on a guessed-at market, and sell their work for retail rather than wholesale prices, and keep a much bigger percentage of the take, several good things will happen.
One is that they’ll make more money, lead happier lives, and run their own businesses, which is reason enough right there. Another is that they’ll expand and diversify their offerings, which will be good for their customers (me!), and spread the prosperity around in their own countries. Another is that we’ll sidestep the stupid U.S. textile mills with their stupid bought-and-paid-for tariffs, and the stupid large-scale clothing industry (which keeps discovering and then forgetting again that there’s money to be made selling clothing in more diverse sizes), and instead feed money into those countries’ working economies.
(1. Take it from a New Yorker: it’s amazing how fast scary brown persons turn into cheerful householders when they have real paying jobs with reasonable job security. It’s almost as though they have the same desires and ambitions that white people do. 2. When people make money, and therefore have money, they buy your products, too.)
Another thing I think will happen is that we’ll become real human beings to each other. Some people think “terrorist” when they hear “swarthy Middle Eastern immigrant,” but to me that description also covers “the guy with the bismillah-stickered cart on the corner of Broadway and 23rd who does the great halal-chicken-and-rice lunch special.” I figure we could stand to have more people in Pakistan for whom the word “American” conjures up not only “soldier shooting an unarmed wounded man in a mosque,” but also “that short blonde woman in California who’s so fond of purple.”
Some of us have been saying for a while that if we can export our jobs, we can export our labor practices. My addition to this is that if the plutocrats can export our manufacturing, I can damned well export my retail purchasing. Let George’s campaign contributors fend for themselves.