If you’ve followed the news in the past few weeks, you’ve probably seen the headlines about the factory collapse in Bangladesh.
With a death toll of more than 1,000, it’s the country’s deadliest industrial disaster ever, and bodies continue to be pulled from the wreckage. The collapse has tragically become the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry: anywhere, ever. And it’s the deadliest structure collapse in modern history, outside of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York’s Twin Towers.
All of this nearly a century after the garment industry ceased to be dangerous in the United States and the rest of the developed world (in places where the industry still exists and hasn’t been out-competed by free trade agreements, that is).
Bangladesh is a heartbreaking reminder of what the flip side of sustainable and conscious consumption looks like. And the disaster can’t help but shift attention to our own consumer habits. We can’t just lay blame on the building owner who built eight stories on unstable ground, or the regulators who turned a blind eye to the extra three stories added illegally to the original building plan.
Also culpable is every American and European consumer who happily bought cheap “Made in Bangladesh” items at the mall without a thought, and every trendy apparel company that contracted out mind-numbing work and inhumane hours to distant factories so as to manufacture the excuse, “we didn’t know.” It’s also the fault of socially blind free trade policies that have forced developing countries to sell their poverty to the highest bidder in the West.
It’s impossible not to feel rage that our unquenchable demand for fast fashion—cheap garments that quickly fall apart or become obsolete—has resulted in a disaster that makes New York’s infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, which killed 146 Americans, look like a minor accident. But anger is not the answer. There are real lessons that we can learn from this tragedy to make sure that our consuming behavior does not again create the conditions for a repeat of these events.
As Americans, we trash over 13 million tons of textiles, mostly clothes, each year. Nearly half of these items—from tuxedos to t-shirts—are still perfectly usable. According to the book The Story of Stuff, the fast fashion company H&M can produce a garment in under three weeks, and many clothing retailers, due to shortened production times and lower prices, have introduced so many fashion “seasons” that each season may be as brief as two weeks.
As retail prices and production speeds decline, wages and working conditions are pressed downward. Even though a decrease in demand for cheap clothing might eliminate some developing-world jobs, the jobs that remain have a chance to be better quality (if the other lessons here are followed) and might help an entire country develop more effectively.
Competition among businesses is often portrayed as a random force; however, there’s usually one ideal to which most sellers in the marketplace strives. Right now, in the garment industry (as in most other consumer goods industries) the dominant standard of competition is low price. Corporations and consumers alike have celebrated ever-lower prices since the rise of consumerism during the post-war era, and with the help of Walmart and other price-slashing retailers, we’ve increasingly moved in that direction.
But it wasn’t always like that, and it doesn’t have to be. If consumers demand more durable, less obsolescent, and more equitably produced garments, countries with exploitative industries like Bangladesh will actually find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. If we can shift the standard of competition to prioritize other factors than just the bottom line—such as social justice and environmental protection—such nations will feel the pressure to follow consumer demand and improve their conditions.
The days of company-owned factories with lifetime employees have long since faded into the era of the “Great American Middle Class.” Today, U.S. producers, especially of garments but also of items like cheap electronics, generally contract with suppliers around the world, who then sub-contract the actual manufacturing to a distant factory. The factory workers work for the sub-contractor, several steps removed from the company whose name will actually end up on the product.
Not surprisingly, it is impossible for U.S. companies to track everything that goes on in these distant factories, especially when corruption and finagling can result in so-called “unauthorized production,” in which a contractor sub-contracts manufacturing to an unauthorized factory, potentially one that fails to meet internationally recognized or even company-required labor, production, or building standards.
In addition to shifts in consumer demand, there needs to be basic protection of workers’ rights and basic enforcement of safety regulations. Some have argued that it would be inefficient for Bangladesh to have standards as high as those in the West. This is probably true. But to argue that Bangladesh should not be as highly regulated as the United States is not to say that the country should be building factories that are prone to collapse.
American retailers and distributors, as well as the federal government, should strive to enforce certain basic worker and environmental protections throughout the full length of supply chains, wherever in the world these may extend. This leads to the final lesson:
One of the most insidious arguments made in the aftermath of disasters like the one in Bangladesh is that workers were not really exploited because they chose the work as the best alternative to grinding rural poverty.
One editorial proclaims, “Garment-factory workers in...the developing world are not victims. They have sought out this work, and they want to be agents of their own fate. They often get a raw deal, but they’re enduring these jobs because the jobs are an improvement over any other alternative—and their engagement with the West’s consumer markets can be the vehicle to greater empowerment.”
What this line of argument implicitly assumes is that there is no third alternative: textile work where wages are livable and conditions are safe. The editorial itself notes that as wages increase in places that meet these ideals, manufacturers inevitably move to lower-wage regions. As long as poverty is a commodity, trade with the West will not raise up these poor nations.
The fact is that our clothes are so cheap that to raise wages, and consequently prices, would improve the lives of developing world workers far more than it would hurt our wallets. We can have both affordable consumer goods and decent, responsible workplaces. What’s more, higher prices might help us think twice about our rampant consumer habits.
More than 1,000 people are already dead, and no amount of hand-wringing or conscious consuming will undo their deaths. But perhaps these deaths will not be in vain. Is it too much to ask if every time we hear a “Buy now!” commercial for the mall, or a discount shop runs a $5 shirt special, we say to ourselves, “Remember Bangladesh!”?
Addison Del Mastro is a student at Drew University and a former intern at New Dream.