Why Do Supermarkets Sell Jeans?
photo from The Globe and Mail
I was born in the eighties. I’m getting to the point in my life where I can say “When I was young...” and elicit awed expressions from a younger audience.
A favorite is of course: “when I was young the internet didn’t exist”. I know... crazy!
A new one that I’ve surprised myself by pointing out of late is: when I was young you couldn’t buy your t-shirts (or jeans, or shoes, or swimwear) at the supermarket. You bought food at the supermarket. And only food.
Hard to believe but there is a whole generation out there that finds this concept strange.
A clothing-in-supermarket model pioneered by Walmart has now spread across all demographic levels of the foodstuffs game – from value chains right through to Whole Foods. The concept behind it is fair enough: you’re already out shopping for the staples in your life - milk, bread, veggies... – why not top it off with a new pair of jeans, or kicks, or underwear.
To accomplish this the clothes must be cheap – cheap enough that one needn’t save up or wait around for a special occasion (you know, like we did in the old days). Hence the miraculous $20 pair of jeans or $5 tshirt or $15 shoes...
Somehow, care of some serious belt-tightening in the supply chain and applaudable marketing ingenuity, clothing has joined the ranks of the commodities.
We the consumer have accepted this new reality with open arms. And, for the most part, without questions.
But what deserves to be asked: how has clothing gotten cheaper and more widely accessible in a world where costs are constantly on the rise? Are corners somehow being cut to make this happen?
One year ago today the deadliest garment factory accident in history occurred in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. A grossly overcrowded building housing several textile manufacturing businesses collapsed in a heap, taking with it 1129 innocent lives.
In the days and months afterwards much finger pointing ensued. It didn’t take long before a villain was publicly identified (the factory owner) and the western brands contracting clothing from the space were distancing themselves from any accountability.
They did a remarkable job.
Consider for a moment what type of public outcry would have occurred if that scale of tragedy occurred in North America (knocking on wood)? I can only imagine the public outcries against the companies involved and the long term repercussions.
In this case the tragedy occurred in a distant place in a distant sounding country and because of this, we, the consumer, allowed it not to matter in our daily lives. Think for a moment: can you name 2 brands that were involved in this tragedy?The reasons for why this occurred are many - desensitization, willing ignorance, pure indeference - but the truth is that the event was essentially swept under the rug and people (here - not in Bangladesh) moved on.
As a quick refresher (we wrote a longer piece about the tragedy last year): not only did this building have multiple illegally built floors on top of the original infrastructure, there had also been inspectors announcing the building unsafe and in grave danger of collapse in the days leading up to the tragedy. Even with this information the factory workers were ordered back to work – business as usual.
I'm writing this piece here this evening, on the 1 year anniversary (if you can call it that) of this terrible tragedy for 2 reasons.
First, as a business that contracts garment factories ourselves, I believe that the brands involved have more responsibility in this than has been let on. The model that they have enabled (cheap at all costs) is largely responsible for why this happened and for that, ownership and accountability is deserved. For this reason I wanted to highlight again the more notable brands that were operating from that factory 1 year ago today:
- Joe Fresh
- The Children’s Place
- El Corte Ingles
Note that two of the brands, Walmart and Joe Fresh, are the dominant players in that supermarket-clothing retailing phenomenon I highlighted earlier (Joe Fresh owns the market sector in Canada). Both have championed the commodization of fashion and both have profited immensely from it. Perhaps this begins to answer the question of how clothing has come to be so cheap.
The second reason for which I bring this up is to remind you, the consumer, that you have a choice. Every dollar spent is a vote cast for the future you want to see. There is immense power in this truth! One of my favorite quotes (by Margaret Mead) sums this up perfectly: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." That mentality is exactly what our world needs to ensure this doesn't happen again.
In the hours after the tragedy a photographer who was on the scene decided that instead of putting down his camera, he'd use it as a tool to show the world first hand that their decisions can prevent this scale of tragedy from happening in future. I warn you, the images are graphic; however, the message is as clear and poignant as I've ever seen delivered.
Thanks for reading,