The Bangladesh factory disaster and cheap clothing – what can we do?

The images coming out of Bangladesh are heart-breaking.

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And the search footage they’ve been showing on the news is harrowing. It makes you feel powerless.

Plus, this Bangladesh news comes right on the heels of the story about Zara using slave labour, which came 2 years after a story…accusing Zara of using slave labour. They obviously don’t care.

And why should they? They’re heaped with admiring comments, not just from fashion blogs, but from journalists in the NYTimes.

I know consumers can exert pressure on companies, but could brands like Zara and Primark even operate without cut-price labour? Their whole business model is built on it.

My wardrobe is never going to be entirely hand-made. I buy high street clothes. And even if I didn’t, I’d be involved. I have no idea where most of my fabric came from. The cotton could have been picked by forced labour in Uzbekistan. It’s so hard to keep track of everything.

As home-sewers, we know how much work goes into a garment. However complicated a clothing supply chain gets, we know that at the end of it there are people, not just machines.

And that $1.14, divided between seven of those people, is not enough pay for making a pair of jeans.

Zara jeans

The only ray of hope (if you can call it that) is that the Bangladesh tragedy is getting a lot of press attention. And the press is linking the disaster with the clothing industry in a way I’ve not seen before.

The BBC even recorded this video asking people if they knew where their clothes were made (non-spoiler: nobody did).

The tangible things I can think of doing are:

  • Donate to Anti-Slavery International. They are the only UK charity campaigning to stop slave labour. Their magazine is how I found out about the forced labour in the cotton fields in Uzbekistan.
  • Talking about the issue and try and keep it in the news (hence this post).

I don’t know what I can do apart from that and I feel pretty helpless.

Some resources I found:

– The author of Overdressed, a book about the rise of cheap clothing, has a list of actions you can take here.

Labour Behind The Label support garment workers. They grade high street companies on how ethical they are.

– The Guardian have an ethical fashion directory here

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27 thoughts on “The Bangladesh factory disaster and cheap clothing – what can we do?

  1. Meraj May 2, 2013 / 2:22 AM

    Thanks for this post. Like you, I want to be heartened by the media scrutiny of this, but at the same time it’s so hard to imagine the overall system changing. Wasn’t there a Bangladesh factory fire leading to 100+ deaths just last November? And probably many smaller ones before and after that one?

    … It’s like: how do we do our part to ensure real changes happen after the media furor dies down? Especially when even in the immediate aftermath, articles are already being written about how this is ‘just the way the world is’ and ‘it should stay that way for everyone’s economic and social good’ (I’m thinking especially about Josh Voorhees’ piece on Slate, which is mysteriously unavailable now). It’s simultaneously unbelievable and totally-believable, since these “economic” arguments are the same ones that were made a couple hundred years ago about slavery.

    Also, thank you for linking to that NYT piece. It was jarring to see, especially in light of the accusations against Zara, but I guess that’s important.

    (Also, I agree with everyone’s points about the small and large things we can do to combat this-all. I thought they were all good suggestions.)

  2. Danielle April 29, 2013 / 4:26 AM

    Thank you for this post. It IS easy to feel helpless in the face of such entrenched exploitation isn’t it? That’s the main reason I sew now; it may not be a huge change in global terms, but I can at least take responsibility for my own consumption.
    It seems to me also that any historic change for the better has come about through a committed, passionate few, which gradually swells into a movement. As awareness of the humanitarian and environmental cost of fast fashion grows, I think we’ll see a demand for genuine and lasting change. Let’s keep on sewing and talking about it!
    Have you read Lucy Siegle’s “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World”? It’s an excellent read, very informative and challenging, and it lists lots of wonderful and ethical alternatives to the high street. Well worth a look!

    • yesilikethat April 29, 2013 / 9:54 AM

      Hi Danielle, I really need to read that book, it is next on my list. Thanks for your thoughts – I guess it’s a ‘think local, act global’ situation…

  3. Kerry April 28, 2013 / 7:19 PM

    It’s really terrible and we’re all to blame from retailers to the media to consumers. I think everyone knows at the back of their mind that most high street clothing is not ethical and it’s become like a joke about those ‘children who have such tiny hands perfect for making our shoes’ when really that IS the reality and it’s not funny at all.
    Thanks for the links, very important to think about what we can actually do.

    • yesilikethat April 29, 2013 / 9:53 AM

      You’re so right. It’s a weird distancing technique I guess. I do it all the time.

  4. Joelle April 28, 2013 / 6:51 PM

    Thank you for the links to take action! Labour Behind the Label has a lot of good information!

  5. theperfectnose April 28, 2013 / 2:57 PM

    Made in a Free World is pretty good too. It’s good that you’re covering this stuff. Forever21 and other fast fashion brands suck for all the same reasons as the big names.
    Disagree with the comments saying ‘not buying will force workers into unemployment’ etc. No it wont. It’ll force the companies that ’employ’ (although chaining someone to a sewing machine isn’t employment by any definition) them to enforce human and environmental safety standards.
    In a free market it is the consumers who decide what they’re going to pay for. And if they decide not to pay for slave labour created goods, slave labour will cease to exist because it will cease to be an economically viable option for manufacturers. I make it a point not to buy stuff made in China (and other countries where trade unions are illegal and/or human and environmental concerns are non-existant-my laptop and smartphone are exceptions to this rule because it was impossible to get around it).
    I get most of my fabric from suppliers that source it from non-dodgy nations or better still sell remnants and end rolls from local suppliers and manufacturers. Opshops and ebay are great for new-old stock. It’s doable. It’s not awesome but it’s a heck of a lot better than buying highstreet. =P
    Good on you for covering the issue and initiating a discussion.

    • yesilikethat April 29, 2013 / 9:52 AM

      Thanks TJ, really insightful comment as always. Interesting about your smartphone, did you hear the This American Life episode about the Foxconn factory? I think it’s a huge shame that Mike Daisey fabricated parts of his story, the resulting uproar basically drowned out all the discussion about the original subject. He did a lot of harm where he could have done good.

    • theperfectnose April 29, 2013 / 10:06 AM

      Thanks. I haven’t heard the podcast but I did read a couple of articles (Wired, nyt etc) about it while it was happening. Apple is definitely ‘wanting’ in the areas of environmental responsibility and worker treatment ethics, but their products work and I can’t see that any other manufacturer has a ‘clean’ record i.e. all smartphones use trace elements that are mined in only a couple of countries and all by slaves. Its a ‘choice’ between buying one and supporting the trade or being phoneless. The Made in a Free World site has a calculator where you enter all your data and it tells your ‘slave footprint’. Mine’s pretty much 100% due to the phone+laptop combo =( Sad because I keep everything else local and still have a footprint.

    • yesilikethat April 29, 2013 / 10:25 AM

      Yes, it’s incredibly hard. There are no other options when it comes to tech gear basically.

      Similarly, I really hate buying from Amazon because of their poor treatment of staff but they have such a monopoly sometimes it’s the only option.

    • Franca April 29, 2013 / 2:10 PM

      Interestingly though, the pressure groups are saying not to boycott primark as that will cost the workers jobs but rather to write to them and campaign so that they improve standards. I’m not sure I agree though, from a sustainability point of view we HAVE to stop buying new things even if it does cost jobs. We HAVE to find a new way of people getting paid that does not rely on constant growth and the production of physical things or our children will be completely screwed. I always buy fair trade when buying new, but still it’s better to not buy at all (or buy used) in my opinion. Written about it here a bit: http://www.oranges-and-apples.com/2012/01/untangling-ethical-fashion.html

    • Franca April 29, 2013 / 2:12 PM

      And Amazon – I hear you! They pay no taxes but I just can’t seem to stop buying from them because they are almost always cheaper and often the only source of certain things. In my defense I only realised the no taxes thing recently, but still.

    • yesilikethat April 30, 2013 / 8:38 AM

      I know, they have a monopoly on so much stuff (and so many independent retailers sell through them) that it’s really hard not to shop there. I love your post about ethical fashion, really helpful.

  6. nicoleneedles April 28, 2013 / 1:27 PM

    I agree with the feeling helpless comment – the clothing supply and manufacture model is so global and convoluted, that no matter how careful you are, someone somewhere has suffered. Even if you have a 100% home made wardrobe, its likely the weaving and dying process of the fabrics had a detrimental effect on people and their environment. Let’s just keep talking about it and hope people think more when they shop. I think we also buy too much; we rarely ‘wear things out’. I think the growing community of sewers will appreciate how much work is involved in creating a garment; I know that this has stopped me shopping in chain stores because I just don’t feel good about paying £10 for a jacket.

    • yesilikethat April 29, 2013 / 9:49 AM

      What gets me is the expensive shops – I love Whistles (although can only afford it in the sale/on ebay), and would love to know that the higher price of their clothing means the makers get a decent wage. But who knows?

  7. Fiona April 28, 2013 / 12:15 PM

    Wonderful post, all those links are really useful and I’ve just spent a fair bit of time reading through them all. I know I don’t think about these things enough and even though I feel good that my sewing has drastically reduced the amount of high street shopping I do, I’m going to make much more of an effort to choose where I shop in future.
    I too would have put Zara in my list of favourite shops but will think twice about shopping there now. Thanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention!

  8. Mari April 28, 2013 / 11:23 AM

    It is, as a consumer, our choice really? But so few of us will exercise it!

    The fertilizer plant in Texas…if we did not continue to ask for those chemicals, those plants wouldn’t be in effect. But then, so many people would be out of work. It is a vicious cycle. But again, a choice that we make.

    Personally, as a consumer, I try to be aware of where my clothing, fabric, and everything else I purchase comes from. It is hard sometimes, but I believe doable. As long as we focus on the big picture and take steps to change it.

    m.

  9. bessiemae April 28, 2013 / 11:17 AM

    My family is closely following the Bangladeshi events. We have no vested interest in the devastating factory collapse, aside from Basic Human Decency. I have tried to educate my sons regarding the economic, humanitarian, and environmental abuses occurring throughout industrialization, food production, et. al.

    To stop purchasing goods manufactured in these factories will decimate the local economies. Sustained consumer and media demand better working conditions and living wages for the workers may improve the situation…..however, the CONSUMER demand must be focused on the conditions for the garment workers, not the price points of finished goods. When shareholders realize increased profits from repeat consumers “buying” ethical behavior, there will be sustained change

    Privately held corporations are not bound to shareholder approval, merely public opinion and monies. Those more media savvy than I have suggested Facebook as the preferred forum for logging consumer dissatisfaction for corporate change.

    • yesilikethat April 29, 2013 / 9:47 AM

      It does seem like the rise of social media should give consumers more leverage over companies – it’s a lot easier to make a fuss now than 20 years ago.

  10. Katy April 28, 2013 / 10:09 AM

    I’m feeling very sheepish now as I did not realise that Zara was accused of using slave labour. I love Zara, it’s my favourite shop… but now I feel very differently about it. It’s awful to think this is how companies treat human life. We certainly need a change in attitude and talking about it is a good first step. Luckily as I walked around the shops yesterday I realised that as I now know more about sewing I was appalled by the construction of most of the clothing. I left not wanting to buy anything but taking notes on what I wanted to make for myself. I guess that’s my small step to help too.

    • yesilikethat April 29, 2013 / 9:46 AM

      I love Zara too! The thing is they’re SO huge and have such an enormous supplier network that they can probably legitimately claim ignorance about this, but that doesn’t make it any better. In theory they should be able to control manufacturing easily as they own their own supply chain, according to that NYTimes article anyway.

  11. Lily. April 28, 2013 / 9:23 AM

    One of my takes on this is that since we know basically everyone on the high street uses sweatshops, we should shop at the cheaper shops more than the more expensive ones – on the basis that at least then Primark and New Look don’t make AS MUCH profit off each shirt as the likes of Zara and Gap.

    • yesilikethat April 29, 2013 / 9:44 AM

      Lily this is incredibly interesting, I never thought of it like this.

  12. Ruth April 28, 2013 / 9:18 AM

    Yes. At the same time can we ask: “The Texas fertilizer plant explosion: what can we do?” it’s exactly parallel. If people didn’t demand super-cheap food, there wouldn’t be the demand for fertilizer, whole areas of the globe would not be ruined, the soil completely depleted and ruined, a whole city in Texas would not be destroyed and the component parts of explosives would not be so available to terrorists.

    Can we also ask: The Fukushima nuclear disaster: what can we do? Etc, etc.

    Why is there always this focus on the supposed misdeeds/exploitation of people in Third World countries? These things happen in the First World too. Try to come up with some answers that won’t ruin a whole town’s livelihood too. It smacks of protectionism, not real concern.

    • yesilikethat April 29, 2013 / 9:43 AM

      Hi Ruth, I do think there’s a huge parallel with food and the clothing industry, but I guess food will always grab more headlines (like the recent UK horse meat scandal) because it’s so personal/visceral.

      I totally agree that boycotting clothing firms, or making sure everything we wear as individuals is okay, is not the answer. That’s partly why I feel so helpless – it seems like such a big issue and I really don’t know enough about how the clothing industry operates to know how things could change. I think consumer pressure could play a part but not the biggest one.

  13. grtescp April 28, 2013 / 9:10 AM

    Thanks for this, it is terrifying how few people stop to think about how our consumer choices in the western world influence the livelihoods of so many people all over the world – not only in clothing but also in food production and probably most other purchases we make. I believe there is a change in attitude – by a small minority – but, as you say, we need to educate everyone around us that a bargain is never really a bargain, it is always a compromise on someone’s life, health, safety, well-being somewhere in the world 😦

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