If you are interested in the global apparel market, you must have been following the story of the collapse of a garment factory, Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh that killed more than 400 people and injured many more. The owner of the building, Sohel Rana, is now under house arrest, his assets seized. Blame is being passed around like a hot potato, with pressure from Western companies, lax attitudes on the part of the building’s owner, and irresponsibility of the factory owners most commonly cited. This is “the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry,” according to the New York Times, and people across Bangladesh reacted with emotional, violent protests in the days following the accident.
Some Western companies implicated have given statements, and a shameful–albeit unsurprising–number of them allege that they did not have clothing “in production” at the time of the collapse. While the question of time was essential in this preventable tragedy, claiming that the production of clothing by the same factory weeks or months earlier did not contribute to the eventual collapse is irresponsible and cowardly. Low-end British retailer Primark, whose labels were found in the building after the collapse, acknowledged their responsibility and want to contribute financially to the suffering families; could that money have gone toward creating safe workplaces before the fact?
Some early reporting blamed the unsafe conditions on pressure from these Western companies to produce quickly in massive quantities. The New York Times reported that although inspectors hired by global brands examine “safety factors and working conditions,” they are not responsible for checking the condition of buildings; where do you think the responsibility of inspectors should start and end? An engineer from Rana Plaza apparently attempted to warn the building’s owners about the dangerous condition of the building and was rebuffed; television stations reported on the cracks in the structure, but were ignored by local officials.
One significant argument for low-cost garment production in these countries is that it gives people jobs. It is possible that these factory workers might not have had other options, or could have fallen into far worse situations. However, I believe that positioning Western, global companies as the only or best solution to endemic poverty and unemployment in places such as Bangladesh perpetuates these issues instead of “solving” them–and what kind of opportunity is $40/month, regardless of cost of living?
Americans notoriously argue for democracy of fashion, that companies and brands offering low-priced clothing are giving those of us who cannot afford high fashion our right to buy. The system that produces these billions of objects, where the American or European consumer is at the top of the food chain, may seem democratic from such great heights. But incidents like the collapse of this building are wedges in the cracks in that argument, as are fires such as that which killed 112 people in Bangladesh in November 2012, and the numerous smaller incidents and general unsafe conditions that go unreported by big Western news media outlets. These are preventable.
The fashion news website Business of Fashion published a thoughtful Op-Ed piece by Liroy Choufan on the consumer’s justification of overspending as “democracy,” especially worth a read with these terrible events in mind. Another Op-Ed to read was written by M.T. Anderson on the history of garment-trade tragedy, the “flow” of cheap labor from “ethnicity to ethnicity,” and how this recent incident in a faraway land is really very close to our lives. I wonder if you, like me, will be met cruelly and ironically with a pop-up banner advertisement for two-for-one shoe deals: two pairs, $39.99!
How do you make decisions about what you purchase and wear? Is the country of production an important consideration, or irrelevant to your choice? What responsibility do American and global clothing companies have toward the people who make their clothing? Toward their customers? What responsibility do you have as a consumer? Do you think it’s effective to “vote with your wallet”?
I’m very interested in what our readers think about this event and the surrounding conversation: please leave your comments below!