“Save money. Live better.” “Expect more. Pay less.” “Good stuff cheap.” Americans love a bargain.
Yet, few realize that the affordable apparel stacked and racked in department stores is not as cheap as it seems. Many of those items are produced by laborers from developing nations — often children — who work long hours and earn poverty wages in oppressive working conditions. As one retailer put it this Halloween season, “Deals so good, they’re frightening.”
It’s been called the “Wal-Martization of America.” Small wonder. The Associated Press reports that, last year, the chief executive of our nation’s largest retailer was paid more than $14,000 an hour. This is not a typo. His average American employee earns an hourly wage of about $10.
Corporate greed is a many-headed hydra, and it’s gobbling up children, families and communities both here and abroad. But what can anyone do about it?
Father Andrew O’Connor once asked himself the same question. On a retreat in Guatemala, the Bronx priest and artist found himself taken by the exquisite craftsmanship of local Mayan weavers. He decided to use their artistry in making albs for his parish, following the Church’s tradition of using the best materials for the highest worship. He employed Harlem seamstresses to do the sewing.
Encouraged by that project’s success, Father O’Connor expanded his efforts. He began designing fashions for regular folks — men, women and children — and named his new line of clothing Goods of Conscience. Its motto: to enhance the spirit of worker and wearer alike.
That’s not mere sentiment, the priest points out. It’s Catholic social teaching. Father O’Connor cites Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical on the dignity of the worker, Centesimus Annus, as formative in his thinking.
While acknowledging “the positive value of the market and of enterprise,” the late Holy Father noted that “these need to be oriented toward the common good.”
A just wage ensures that a Guatemalan widow can keep her children in a local school. Humane working conditions keep a family in the town of its roots and out of city slums and sweatshops.
And there’s even more to work than that. “The hunger is deeper than the satiation of temporal needs,” says Father O’Connor. “The poor want more than what is given to them on an outstretched hand.”
Workers, he adds, deserve the satisfaction of creating something beautiful. He has christened that something beautiful “social fabric.”
It’s a slow process in direct contrast to the fast and cheap lifestyle of “soulless goods” Americans are accustomed to, Father O’Connor points out.
The cotton used in Goods of Conscience items comes out of the earth in natural hues of cream, green and reddish brown. Using ancient techniques, the Mayans spend weeks hand-weaving fabric. Interwoven throughout is Father O’Connor’s secret blend of reflective fiber. It cannot be copied or obtained anywhere else.
Then some of the fabric is dyed using natural indigo in El Salvador or by Father O’Connor himself in New York City.
The results are not cheap products. Expertly crafted, the clothing is durable and original. Father O’Connor’s artistry has been showcased in Vogue magazine and on network television.
It’s got a genuine “cool” quotient, too. Take a photo of the fabric and a field of crosses appears.
“It is an incarnational metaphor,” says Father O’Connor. “It says that human labor is mixed with the divine.”
The price is not cheap, either. By the time the garments hit the racks — about 40 pieces per month — the prices range from $200 to $700. But Goods of Conscience customers are rewarded for their purchases in more ways than one.
“I love his clothes, the way they feel and look on,” says Patricia Gutierrez, a return customer and supporter. She also loves “knowing that I am wearing clothes that are helping others less fortunate.”
Gutierrez credits Father O’Connor with her return to the Catholic faith. “In his life and homilies, Father always tries to make us aware of those less fortunate,” she says, “and to bring to the world of technology some of the spiritual wealth of the poor.”
Speaking of wealth: Where there are any profits, they go right back into the community, says Father O’Connor. Guatemalans are in the process of building a church. The priest has sent albs to the Mayans so that they too can enjoy the finished garments. He calls this exchange the “cycle of charity.”
Pride and Productivity
The cycle of charity serves the poor of New York, as well. Amanda Koenig Stone runs the business end of the apostolate so that Father O’Connor can attend to his parish duties. She oversees workers from underdeveloped nations like El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
“Our workers are thrilled to work in an environment that is light and open, with music playing and a very friendly, family-like feel,” says Koenig Stone.
Goods of Conscience gives its workers a chance to continue working at what they do best in an otherwise disappearing garment industry. The extra income doesn’t hurt, either.
What’s more, says Koenig Stone, the workers understand “by this work, we are helping people poorer than them in Guatemala and they, who have very little, want to help out others with less.”
Having little and producing much is often the way of Christ, Father O’Connor says, citing Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 on a few loaves and fish. That Gospel passage resonates with the priest as he goes about his work.
And why not? Like that seminal miracle, Goods of Conscience is a bargain — and Americans love those.
Susie Lloyd writes from
INFORMATION (212) 372-7439 GoodsOfConscience.com