Buying a better world

Consumers have the power to change working conditions in places like Bangladesh

Clothes made in Bangladesh are cheap, but their production may compromise the health and safety of workers.
Clothes made in Bangladesh are cheap, but their production may compromise the health and safety of workers.
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The recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh and a fire in another earlier this month makes four disasters in the country’s highly profitable and low-cost garment industry in less than six months.

All of these incidents should compel us to consider a number of things, perhaps the most important being whether our First World desire for cheap clothing is worth the lives, injuries and terrible working conditions of a large number of people in developing countries.

Proponents of overseas manufacturing would suggest that by employing people who would otherwise be unemployed and living in poverty, western companies are actually improving their standard of living.

In terms of monetary remuneration, that may be true. Still, wages for Bangladeshi garment workers are some of the lowest on the planet at approximately $38 US per month. Additionally, they’re subjected to working conditions that, in the Western world, went out with the reforms that followed the Industrial Revolution.

The reasoning for this should be harder to explain away. How do you develop an ethically-defensible position that people in poorer countries, regardless of how their wage improves their standard of living, should be okay with working in potentially life-threatening conditions?

If you find what happened in Bangladesh upsetting, then your next question should be “what can I do about it?” The answer is both simple and complicated.

Companies and activists alike will tell you that nothing ever changes, because the majority of consumers don’t act as though they care. If North American companies had an incentive to bring manufacturing back home (i.e. consumers willing to pay more for their products), they likely would, if for no other reason than to better control production and quality.

If you think that something needs to change, then you have to be willing to put your money where your mouth is and be more thoughtful and careful about where you shop, what and how much you buy and what you’re willing to pay.

Unfortunately, that sounds easier than it really is.

There are companies like American Apparel that make a big deal about where their products are made (in North America), but where the materials are sourced from can be considerably more difficult to find out.

There is also a culture of sexual harassment embedded in the company — the CEO, Dov Charney, has been accused of sexual harassment, and Britain’s Advertising Authority has alleged that the retailer sexualizes models under 16.

There are other clothing manufacturers, like Icebreaker, that make it easy to find the source of its materials.

For example, you’re able to trace a garment’s materials back to the New Zealand sheep stations that produced the wool fibre, find out about the living conditions of the sheep and then follow the fibre to the factories that knit, dye, finish, cut, manufacture and ship the garments.

Unfortunately, many companies make it very hard to find out about both raw materials and manufacturing practices — but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.

Even these two examples highlight several problems consumers often say impede their purchasing of ethically-produced products.

The first, and most common, is price. Even as a professor, I can only buy Icebreaker products occasionally or I’d quickly end up broke. One t-shirt can run as much as $90. For students, these products can be perceived to be completely out of reach.

A second is a lack of choice and availability. American Apparel might appeal to a certain demographic and is fairly widely available, but I think we can all agree that most of its clothing wouldn’t be appropriate for someone like me, a professor, to wear to work or to teach a class.

It’s certainly not going to work for the moms and kids who shop at Joe Fresh, one of the manufacturers who produced at the factory that collapsed in Bangladesh.

Yet there are a lot of smaller North American producers that make similar items to those being made in mass quantities in places like Bangladesh.

You can go to a local boutique, design show or a website like Etsy.com to find something truly unique. Local and ethically-produced goods are almost certainly going to be somewhat more expensive.

But we need to consider whether we would be better off buying one really high-quality (and potentially higher-priced) item that will last a long time instead of multiple ones that will have to be replaced sooner, and that are likely made in a factory in a developing country.

What is the role that we, as consumers, play in the demand for ever-changing “fast fashion” and cheap textile goods?

One thing I can tell you for certain is that if we don’t demand change by using dollars to show we’re serious, nothing will ever really change and news of another disaster won’t be far off.

Monica LaBarge is a professor of marketing in the Queen’s School of Business.

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