The death toll — now 1,127 with the rescue operation ending – from last month’s collapse of a Dhaka garment factory in the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh has brought the issue of how our clothes are made to the fore. Just as food and many other products now can be labeled as “fair trade,” should clothing be too?
Industry Giants Developing Index for “Sustainable Apparel”
We can now buy fair trade coffee and organic fruits and vegetables that have been certified to meet standards regarding outsourcing, working conditions and environmental issues. Some retailers say they are taking the first steps towards greater transparency about the origins of their clothes. Large-scale apparel companies including Gap, Patagonia, Target, Walmart and Nike (which is of course no stranger to controversy after being threatened in the 1990s with a worldwide boycott over sweatshop conditions in its overseas factories) are part of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. This industry group has been developing the Higg Index to enable companies “to evaluate material types, products, facilities and processes based on a range of environmental and product design choices.” Retailers also plan to add measures for labor and social standards.
The Higg Index is intended for companies’ internal use and, as Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, says in the New York Times, self-regulation may well not be sufficient. British retailer Primark trumpets its ethics and sustainable practices on its website, but after the Dhaka garment factory collapsed, Primark was one of at least five companies admitting that some of its products were made in the eight-story building.
Some companies such as Prana have begun to offer clothing labeled as Fair Trade and a number of online apparel sites (Everlane says that it aims for “radical transparency”) make a point to highlight that their products are ethically made, noting how many workers make the product and the costs of each material. Major retailers such as Nordstrom say they are “considering” offering information about clothes made in “humane working conditions,” according to the New York Times.
Too Many Consumers Want Cheap Clothes No Matter What the Human Cost
While the New York Times cites research studies about consumers caring about where and how their clothes made, Bloomberg notes that consumers are not exactly ready to give up buying products for just a few dollars. Many acknowledge that something needs to be done to improve working conditions (not to mention pay) for millions who toil over sewing machines, yet the fashion industry and consumers quibble. The pleasures of being able to purchase all the $5 t-shirts and cheap knock-off handbags we need to satiate our “shopping fix” apparently override ethical concerns.
The Bangladeshi government has announced that it is setting up a panel to raise the minimum wage for more than 3 million workers. Many have been protesting in the streets of Dhaka for just that and also calling for the death penalty for Mohammad Sohel Rana, the owner of the collapsed Rana Plaza complex. Were factories to be located in safe structures with fire exits, fire escapes, emergency lighting, proper alarm systems and electrical rewiring, the price increase to consumers could be as little as 25 to 30 cents more, Nova tells The Atlantic. Such changes are estimated to cost about $3 billion, says Nova.
The real issue is how much of the costs companies may pass onto consumers, rather than see their own profits lessened. Neeru Paharia, an assistant professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University who has conducted research on consumers’ attitudes toward sweatshop labor, points out that the “complex supply chain in retailing” is part of the problem. Companies in one part of the globe contract with suppliers in another part. They in turn contract with those who run the factories that produce the clothes. As a result, the origins of what we wear every day are hidden from us. As Paharia says in the New York Times,
“Most people probably would not hire a child, lock them in their basement, and have them make their clothes, but this system is so abstracted.”
The modern way of making clothes is to mask their origins, so that the consumer doesn’t think to ask whose hands made their jeans and concentrates only on style and the price tag.
Modern consumer culture is, it can be argued, the ultimate culprit in disasters like that last month in Dhaka. We’ve become used to buying new things that companies, looking to raise profit margins, are glad to produce in newer, cheaper, more enticing forms. There are small companies (some consisting of only one or two people) who make clothes, shoes and other goods such as toys who are more than transparent about their process, opening up their studios to the public and otherwise getting the word out about their work. But today’s consumers are by and large unwilling to wait the weeks it can take for such handmade products nor to want something that’s not what everyone else is wearing, nor to pay higher costs.
Just today, a number of major global fashion companies signed a legally binding agreement to dedicate funding for fire safety and building improvements in factories in Bangladesh. Should clothing have a fair trade label as foods and other products do? Even if it costs more, would you purchase it?
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