Is Saving That Extra Dollar Really Worth it?
I feel sick to my stomach. Angry and frustrated too!
Why? Because up to a 1,000 people may have died (hopefully much less) in a garment factory last week because of a Western desire for fast, cheap fashion. And for a change, I know that I am a direct participant in the process.
On April 24, 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, an 8 story garment factory collapsed. Thousands of people worked in the factory – originally built at 5 stories, with 3 stories added without permit later – and today, a week later, roughly 400 people are confirmed dead. Depending on the estimates I've read, between 100-1300 others are unaccounted for and most agree time has likely run out for anyone that may have survived the collapse.
The factory before collapse. Note the 3 additional floors. (Photo from Forbes)
Rescue operations at the garment factory collapse (Photo from Forbes)
The day before the collapse large cracks began to appear in the factory walls. Police were called to the scene and ordered the facility shut down. The managers of the 5 garment factories that worked across the 8 floors disobeyed, ordering their workers to continue working. The next day, with little warning the entire facility imploded upon itself. The 5 managers and the building’s owner are now either in custody or being sought by police.
1,000 people dead and countless families forever impacted. All so that we in the West can buy a pair of fashionable tshirt for $10!
It deserves to be asked - how important is that extra savings to you? After all, our accountability in this as consumers is that we continue to push retailers for cheaper prices while continuing to demand the same or higher quality. That is an equation that invariably results in sacrifices being made at another point the supply chain - such as infrastructure and safety conditions.
It may be true that we had no direct say in the conditions of the factory; however we do hold an incredibly important card in the game. When we go to the store (or online) and purchase cheap “fast fashion” clothes we are in essence condoning the behaviour of those manufacturing the goods. In other words, we become WILLING ACCOMPLICES in how they are being made.
Ever shopped at Joe Fresh – the Loblaws owned retailer enjoying acclaim throughout Canada and USA for the fashionable and cheap clothing it produces? I have. How about at the United Colors of Benetton? Or perhaps you live in the UK and you’ve shopped at Primark? If so, it’s not a stretch to say that the garment you own from one of those brands was made by someone who is dead today because of where they worked.
Those are just 3 of the many North American and European brands that were producing clothing in the building that collapsed.
I wish this event was a terrible anomaly but sadly it isn’t. It’s simply the latest, most horrific of a string of headline-news worthy garment factory tragedies.
In November of last year 117 people lost their lives in a fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh. That factory produced clothing for Wal Mart. Two months earlier in Pakistan, 315 people – mostly women, as in all these cases –died horrifically in a garment factory fire producing mostly denim for western markets. As widely noted in that instance, “all the exit doors in the factory were locked and many of the windows of the factory were covered with iron bars” essentially sealing those inside.
So why does this continue to happen?
In my opinion it’s because we live in a headline news world that sensationalizes – and thus nominalises – human tragedy. Twenty-four hour news channels abound, powered by an ability to turn one person’s horror into another person’s entertainment. Because of the constant exposure to tragedy, we learn to protect ourselves through disassociation. We watch as emergency crews in Dhaka try heroically to pull survivors from the rubble of the garment factory without acknowledging our role in the matter.
The oddity with this is that we, as human beings, are inherently empathetic. We have the ability to imagine ourselves in other’s shoes. This is what makes us kind and loving to those we’ve never met. It’s also what makes us so vulnerable to the plights of others – hence why when we watch these tragedies unfold, we actively choose not to imagine ourselves in their shoes and rather as passive “it’s awful that it’s happening to them” observers.
But everything changes when tragedy occurs close to home. Suddenly we become the ones featured on the 24 hour news and with the spotlight bright, our natural human instincts of love and vulnerability come rushing to the surface.
The tragic Boston Bombings are a perfect example of how quickly the tides can turn. The tragedy hit so close to home for many in North America that they were left feeling personally attacked. Doors were locked and tensions heightened North America wide in those 24 hours after the bombing as the perpetrators walked amongst us. Emotions became raw as fear, anger and resentment bubbled to the surface.
I bring up those emotions once again because I believe it’s important that we view the tragedy in Bangladesh through the same lens. This is not a far-off accident that does not affect your life; rather it is a far-off event that occurred directly because of our lives. And just as we should feel that swelling of emotions – anger, empathy, love – for those affected in Bangladesh so too should we feel accountability.
This post isn’t about guilt for what happened. It’s about accountability for what we all can do to ensure it stops happening in future.
So what can we do?
Start with this:
accountability for your purchases. When a deal seems too good to be true, IT IS! Know this! Use it as your shopping mantra. If you’re buying a
fashionable tshirt for under $10 it is your responsibility to understand that
somewhere along the line sacrifices are being made.
Get into a habit of Googling the company that you’re buying from to see what comes up. Chances are that you’ll quickly learn just why those jeans are so cheap. If you don’t like what you see confront the company. Send them an email or better yet call them. This is a great practice to do with all companies you buy from, even with luxury brands. Explain your expectations and watch as they react. Nike has evolved from the center of a child labor scandal in the 90’s to one of the most proactive social companies in the world because their consumers became involved.
yourself. There are a host of incredible resources and companies in
fashion dedicated to doing things the right way. Check out the blog Social
Alterations to learn about human rights and working standards in international
fashion. Read books like “Let My People Go Surfing” by Yvon Chouinard, the
founder of Patagonia, to understand what conscious sourcing looks like.
- Buy local. It’s not a
failsafe method but chances are good that if your garments are being
manufactured in North America those manufacturers are held to a much higher
standard of safety than facilities in the developing world. This doesn’t mean
that there aren’t others around the world producing fashion ethically. I know
for a fact that there are garment factories everywhere – from Bangladesh to
China to Brazil – that take great care to produce garments safely and with the
best interest of their employees. The challenge by buying from international
manufacturers is in knowing from afar which companies to trust.
When we started KOOSHOO we decided from day one that we would manufacture in the USA or Canada. We made the decision for several reasons, with safety being near the top of the list. At the time, we admittedly were not well versed in the topic of ethics in the fashion world. We simply knew as humans what was right and what was wrong. Our factory audits were literally us visiting and interacting with the employees of our dye houses and production facility in Los Angeles to see conditions first hand.
We couldn’t be more proud of the family-operated facilities that we have partnered with and I cannot even imagine (nor do I want to) the feelings I would be experiencing if we had chosen to go cheap and contract from a facility like the one in Bangladesh that collapsed.
Please take a moment to acknowledge the beautiful human beings that died in this terrible tragedy. Together, by each playing our part, we can honor their lives by ensuring that this doesn’t happen again.
(Photo from Forbes)