American consumer culpability in the Bangladesh Rana Plaza collapse
May 1, 2013 8:12 AM   Subscribe

What can the average American consumer do right now to prevent future Rana Plaza-like tragedies?

I know that this is probably a naive question, and a presumptuous one. But since Rana Plaza was dedicated to the production of cheap garments, at costs Americans have grown to expect, it seems like a major root cause of this is our rampant consumerism.

Does it make sense to stop buying clothes produced outside the US? Or does this even further punish underpaid workers in developing countries? Does it make sense to boycott the companies that sourced from Rana Plaza, even though this seems like a widespread problem? Does it make more sense to buy clothes only made by responsible clothing producers? Is there such a list? To not buy new clothes at all? I'm also interested in NGOs that are addressing this problem, but I want to know what I can do on a day-to-day basis to stop contributing to this type of terrible economic trade-off.

Apologies for the naivety of this question. I know very little about the inner workings of the global economy. I know the buying patterns of one consumer will have zero real-world impact, but perhaps a large-scale consumer shift would.
posted by MaddyRex to Shopping (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Where would you get your clothes then? China? Guatamala? The conditions are no better there.

You can make an effort to purchase Fair Trade Clothing. You could also purchase Fair Trade fabrics and make your own clothing or order on Etsy.

Our economy is so dependent upon all of these cheap goods that you'll have to make a serious effort to do this.

I do it with food. I'm against factory farming and I prefer family farms. I pay through the nose for this stuff, and I have to go across town to shop at the Farmer's Market to get the dairy, meats and veggies I want, but I make the effort. Does that mean that I'm perfect? No, far from it. But I'd say about 70% of what I consume is in line with what I believe. The rest...well, it ain't easy and I can live with it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:17 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Great question and something that I and fellow Bangladeshis have been thinking about a lot these past few days. I will be following this thread with interest.

To attempt to address part of your question:

Does it make sense to stop buying clothes produced outside the US? Or does this even further punish underpaid workers in developing countries?

This recent NY Times article, written by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC, argues:

[C]easing the purchase of Bangladeshi-manufactured goods, as some have suggested, would not be the compassionate course of action. Economic opportunities from the garment industry have played an important role in making social change possible in my country, with about three million women now working in the garment sector. I have dedicated my life to alleviating entrenched poverty, and I know that boycotting brands that do business in Bangladesh might only further impoverish those who most need to put food on their tables, since the foreign brands would simply take their manufacturing contracts to other countries.

This isn't an answer as such but might be of interest when making your consumer decisions.
posted by Ziggy500 at 8:27 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

This has been on my mind a lot, too, so I'm glad you've asked this question. This morning I read this NPR article, and my take-away from that is that most people will not pay more for clothes just to ensure safe working conditions.

I think that points to a real lack of empathy, and I'm not sure how you fix that except to talk to people about the issues, and not let it be forgotten once the Bangladesh incident moves off the news headlines. I think for really big issues, a lot of good change is lost because people just move on and lose interest. There will be another mass shooting, or a tsunami, or a plane downed, or a war started, and this will just be forgotten before real changes are made.

If you can afford to hire a tailor/seamstress that would be a good way to ensure that you aren't contributing to the issue. But if you can't afford that, you can't very well walk around dressed in a barrel, can you? One in-between step would be to refuse to participate in what's being called "fast fashion". These are the super-cheap clothes for whatever is in fashion at this moment. Places like H&M and Uniqlo. Here's a list. That whole idea is designed to entice people to buy very cheap (disposable) clothing, and to engage in rampant consumerism.
posted by Houstonian at 8:49 AM on May 1, 2013

If you can afford to hire a tailor/seamstress that would be a good way to ensure that you aren't contributing to the issue

Assuming you can vet that the tailor/seamstress is only buying fabric from fair trade sources.
posted by COD at 8:57 AM on May 1, 2013

I struggle with this, as well. In the last few years I've tried to be a more thoughtful consumer, but whatever I do...I'm still a consumer. Since you asked specifically about clothes: some things that I do are...

I learned how to mend my own clothes. I can reset hems, replace buttons, and do other basic things. This keeps the clothes that I already have in my closet for a longer time. When items leave my closet, I try to reuse them (rags in the house) or rehome them (give to a friend, sell at a consignment shop, donate to charity) before tossing out the truly unwearables.

I buy the majority of my clothes from consignment or secondhand shops. So I AM still purchasing items that were made in Bangladesh, Thailand, etc...but I feel that it's different because i am not directly supporting the garment industry. Instead, I am supporting the small business of the consignment shop. On the one hand, I'm still wearing the clothes and perpetuating the culture of conspicuously owning clothes made in shady situations. On the other hand, my $$$ is not going to support the companies that operate those shady situations.

I'd totally buy quality clothing that was produced in a worker-friendly, eco-friendly environment. Extra snaps if these clothes are made in the USA, and extra-extra snaps if the corporation is very open and transparent to monitoring and reporting their practices. However, I haven't had a lot of luck finding these magical unicorn companies. I'm kind of between sizes and have very little luck with buying clothes online without being able to try them on, so that trips me up as well.
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:21 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

How many clothes do we really need? When I was a kid in the 1950s I lived in France. Like other middle class American girls my sisters and I owned several dresses (girls were not allowed to wear pants to school back then!) but our French classmates in our all-girls public school in a working class neighborhood of Bordeaux owned one or two, and they wore smocks over them every day at school to keep them clean. Even the boys, who went to school across the street, wore smocks over their clothes. We were the only family with a washing machine and laundromats did not exist there. Our classmates were not any more or less happy than we were.

Much of our economy is based on creating a perceived need for more and newer stuff, whether it's clothing, the latest iPhone, the bigger house, the more exotic vacation. Unless we seriously change our economic system to something much more sustainable, much more ecologically sound, the greed that created the conditions in which these poor Bangladeshis perished will continue to grow.

Here's a link to some interesting organizations.
posted by mareli at 9:33 AM on May 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think that the only thing that's going to prevent building collapses in the future is stricter building codes that are actually followed. I would guess that the best way to accomplish this is to dump enough money into the local economy that the people and the government can afford first-world luxuries like buildings designed not to fall down.

We have strict building codes in the US because we can afford the extra cost of the safer buildings.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:50 AM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Quite seriously, find out what you can do to support labour union organising in Bangladesh. That could mean donating to groups like the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, but it could also mean joining campaigns where you are that encourage multinationals to respect the right for worker organisation.
posted by knapah at 9:57 AM on May 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

I think the only way to stop this kind of thing from happening is to improve the quality of life in the developing world to the point where people have better options than working in shitty factories. I do not know how to do that, though. It's kind of a big question. This could mean supporting educational programs, labor unions, health promotion programs, etc.

The problem is that people are working in these factories because their other options are even worse. If we all stopped buying fast fashion and H&M went belly-up and all those sweatshops closed tomorrow, the people who work in them wouldn't suddenly become nurses or software programmers or something. They'd be one step further back down the ladder out of poverty.

Sweatshops are not some symptom of 21st-century affluenza - they've been around since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and shitty work conditions have presumably been around even longer.

The money that we spend on clothes (etc.) - obviously, yes, probably 99% of it goes to the big companies that run the stores, the distributors, the sweatshops, etc. But the part that goes to the people working in the sweatshops is vital to their survival, and to the economic viability of their countries (exports = foreign exchange for stuff people want and need).

I think we should be thoughtful about this stuff, but cutting back on consumption isn't going to do much to help people working in developing world, and could even hurt.
posted by mskyle at 10:00 AM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Fast fashion doesn't work for me. Nor does paying full price. I dress myself from Goodwill and clothing swaps, except for shoes becausey feet are very difficult to fit. The ethical concerns are secondary to poverty, but I sure do feel self righteous when I get compliments on an outfit that was entirely thrifted.

Obviously, someone has to be buying these items new in order for me to find them on the resale market. Additionally, I have to be very alert for fabric quality, wear, holes. Also obviously, much of my wardrobe is from prior seasons and some fashion hawks will notice. But I buy cuts that (I think) flatter MY figure, in colors that work on me, rather than whatever the big five decided needs to be in right now.

Here is a thing that bothers me about the premise of 'costs Americans have grown to expect.' The corporations selling these garments at the retail end are mostly not scraping by. They are enormous multinational concerns with CEOs making lots of money. The costs of our clothes come from advertising, prime retail locations, shipping, and not from worker wages. In Florida we had a big fight on behalf of our tomato growers. The campaign begged and pleaded for Taco Bell and others to pay an extra penny a pound so that workers could have a fairer wage.

Penny a pound. And many companies fought against it. Bc 'costs would increase too much for consumers.'

We make it very easy for corporations to blame us for worker conditions when fair wages are pitted against affordable products as though it's a zero sum game. Places like wal mart rely on food stamps and Medicaid for their US workforce, they tell us it's because we keep demanding lower prices. What wal mart doesn't tell you is how much money is sitting there at the top.

Sorry. That turned into a rant. but in short, my solution is to buy less stuff, prefer things that do not have a big advertising machine behind them, and look for fairness across the board. But I'm not perfect and readily admit that the cheapest place I can buy shoes for my hard to fit feet is amazon. Famous for their horrific warehouse conditions.

Our Triangle Shirtwaist fire precipitated a lot of American building codes and worker safety laws, but even after such a tragedy, change was slow and more would be good. A lot of people lost their jobs fighting to unionize and lobby for safety. The same process will need to happen in other countries. While that is going on, corporations swear they will flee nations with 'more expensixe' requirements. The race to the bottom is not going to be easy to stop, but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying.
posted by bilabial at 10:01 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Re: the Florida tomatoes penny a pound, it's very similar for the garment industry (via this Atlantic article): "An analysis by WRC estimates the garment industry would have to spend some $3 billion over five years to bring Bangladesh's roughly 4,500 factories up to Western standards. That amounts to less than 10 cents a garment."

Ten cents a garment. You've probably already guessed: "It also requires making 'long-term commitments [Western companies] don't want to make,' says Nova. 'Short term contracts define the relationship.' " Why - deniability (explained further in that same article).

I often choose to make micro-loans (Kiva, for instance) to fabric arts/clothing entrepreneurships, since empowering entrepreneurs is important to the balance. I also like the idea put forward earlier of promoting unions.
posted by fraula at 10:19 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think we should be thoughtful about this stuff, but cutting back on consumption isn't going to do much to help people working in developing world, and could even hurt.

This is the part of the problem that really frustrates me. If I consume fashion that is produced in these shady conditions, I am helping the workers to have a better quality of life (barring dying in a factory collapse or fire, of course). If I cut back and/or try to circumnavigate the system, I am hurting these factory workers by not filtering my pennies down to them. When it comes down to the point of purchase (I need a new shirt which one do I buy), I find myself just stuck in this moral quandary. There are a lot more issues involved, of course, but at the point of purchase: what is the moral thing to do???

Of course I want to help people in the developing world who are suffering from challenges from many angles: poverty, gender discrimination, worker exploitation, environmental degradation. But is buying a new Gap t-shirt really helping them out? Or is buying the used Gap t-shirt from the consignment shop and circumventing the shady system the better thing to do?

*shakes fists angrily at the sky*
posted by Elly Vortex at 10:29 AM on May 1, 2013

This article just showed up a minute ago in my FB feed, and it has a direct link to a meaningful way to help: The New Yorker: Death traps: The Bangladesh garment-factory disaster.
[...] Akter wants more than just compensation for the survivors and their families: she wants profitable companies like Gap and Walmart to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, and to ensure that their subcontractors pay more than the standard, barely livable fifty-five dollars per month. In Bangladesh, the garment industry brings in more than twenty billion dollars each year. Most of its source companies do not require, or allow, independent monitoring of their factories.
The link takes you to the International Labor Rights Forum, and that page on the safety agreement includes links for "what you can do", with a good amount of info, and donations. ILRF is a non-profit that was founded in 1986.
posted by fraula at 10:44 AM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Maybe we could revive the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and make it more international.
posted by mareli at 10:50 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

You know what frosts me? The fact that we drove good, union mill jobs out of the US by not being willing to pay a living wage.

It's so much cheaper for me to dress myself now, than even 20 years ago, because it didn't make economic sense to import clothing from half-way around the world. Now, with cheap communications, computerized patterns, etc, it's MUCH cheaper to produce garments in sweatshops in the developing world.

If I had a choice back then (and this isn't just consumer driven, it's corporate profit driven) I would have paid more.

Norma Rae took place in a knitwear plant in Alabama. I don't think there are any more textile factories in the Southeastern United States.

Also, textile mills/plants moved from the Northeast to the South to avoid unions and union wages. So when the unions came in, the jobs moved to the developing world, to avoid unions and union wages.

I suppose at some point, we'll be able to outsource our stuff to Mars or something.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:11 PM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The loss of mill jobs is regrettable. The loss of any production job is regrettable. While it is nice to provide jobs for Bangladeshis, it would be even nicer if those were not jobs formerly held by now-unemployed Americans. The unemployment rate will not drop as long as outsourcing is profitable.
posted by Cranberry at 12:51 PM on May 1, 2013

Labour Behind the Label. I don't know anything much about it by my daughter-in-law works in sustainable clothing design and she sent it to me.
posted by mareli at 1:48 PM on May 1, 2013

I think it would be possible to wear only made in USA clothing. American Apparel underwear and tshirts, Patagonia sweaters, Red Wing shoes, Philsons shirts, any "designer" jeans are all made in USA. I'm not sure if this is a good idea for actually helping people though.
posted by miyabo at 3:28 PM on May 1, 2013

Also you could hire a tailor in a developing country to make your clothes. EShakti or any Hong Kong tailor probably treat their employees much better than a sweatshop, and you are still injecting money into a developing country.
posted by miyabo at 3:31 PM on May 1, 2013

There are companies who are certified as using reasonable labor standards for their clothing; L.L. Bean and Lands End are 2 I know of. I recall hearing news that the US Government certified some vendors as using verified fair labor sourcing, and I remember LL Bean & Lands End as being certified, but I have no documentation. Just because a company says on their website they use fair labor sourcing, doesn't make it so. Common sense suggests that a company that busts unions in the US is unlikely to care much about labor practices anywhere.
posted by theora55 at 10:12 AM on May 2, 2013

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