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Some thoughts on the Bangladesh factory disaster

bangladesh

I was getting ready to (finally) post my wartime wardrobe challenge post for April, but I couldn’t not say anything about the Bangladesh factory collapse first. These are just some thoughts, not anything comprehensive, but I thought it was worth giving them their own post anyway.

Shopping to help workers?

When this story first broke, they interviewed someone from a pressure group (presumably Labour Behind the Label, though I can’t remember) and they said that they did not recommend people boycott Primark because that will put the garment workers out of a job, but rather than you write to them to complain and express your concern about labour standards. Equally, Lucy Siegle in the Observer quotes someone saying that people who are appalled at the death tool “should let the retailers know and threaten to take their money elsewhere”. But what if your money is already elsewhere? I have no intention of shopping at high street shops ever again if I can at all help it. Should I write to them anyway, pretending I do? I did sign the petition on change.org, but I’m not sure I would go as far as engaging with retailers I want to have no relationship with either way anyway.

I guess this is an interesting dilemma of trading off various aspects of ethics against each other. From a purely labour standard point of view, we should be buying as much fairtrade stuff as we can possibly afford, to help the fairtrade companies grow, and force other companies to follow suit to keep up. But that goes completely against the aim of reducing resource use and preventing environmental degradation. I have written about the tensions between all these things before, and I guess for me the sustainability issue comes out top. A non-essential purchase from a fairtrade company or a local one is obviously better than one from a fast fashion chain, but still the best thing for me is to not buy it at all.

We HAVE to stop buying and producing stuff, and we HAVE to find a way for people to earn a livelihood without endlessly chasing economic growth through the churning out of more stuff**, or the next generation will be completely screwed. It is for this reason that I am feeling pretty ambivalent about a lot of sustainable/ethical fashion blogs. It’s all very well saying ‘look at this new fairtrade/60% upcycled/handmade in Britain company and all their beautiful stuff!’, but ultimately it’s still sending the message that we can somehow shop our way out of this.

Primark vs everyone else, and price as an indicator of labour standards

It is worth noting how everyone pretty much focused on Primark, and Mango, whose labels were also found in the factory, have escaped relatively unscathed. I think I particularly noticed, because pretty much the only time in the last few years I’ve bought unnecessary stuff in a high street shop in the last few years was at Mango* and I feel pretty terrible about it now. But to be honest, no high street shop is safe, and the fact that labels weren’t found does not mean other companies were not using that factory or the many like it.

I think in a way Primark is the easy target, because they are so cheap and the posterchild of fast fashion, but I do find it a bit regrettable the way everyone is so focused on them. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve read people going “When I see a top for £5, I know that the people making it can’t have been compensated fairly”. And I guess that’s true, but equally a top costing £50, or £500 does not in any way whatsoever suggest that labour conditions were better. All it means is that company spends more on marketing, and maybe materials, and makes a larger profit. The factories will be the same. This is not a few bad apples, this is endemic. The only way you can know a company is compensating its workers fairly, and ensuring their health and safety is if they explicitly state they are doing so. You can be sure that any company that does do so will be shouting it from the rooftops. If they aren’t, chances are it’s because they’re doing nothing.

The role of governments

A lot of the outrage in the wake of the disaster has been aimed at the retail companies. And that makes sense, since they are the organisations we as Western consumers are most in touch with. They work for us, or they work to attract us anyway. However, that’s exactly it. Their job is to convince people to buy stuff, and if that means taking some steps towards better labour practices, and using more sustainable materials, they will do that to some extent.

But it’s not actually their job to look after their workers any more than is necessary to get on with the selling of stuff, whereas it IS governments’ job to protect their citizens. They are the ones with the power to introduce minimum standards, and then to actually go and enforce these standards. Voluntary codes can help, but ultimately it’s the law and the regulation that determines how companies act. I can’t remember my source for this now, but I remember reading something about H&M and their widely varying social standards between countries. They’re all Scandinavian social enlightenment in Denmark and Germany, but will treat their workers like crap in countries that allow them to get away with it. Being good in some places does not necessarily translate.

So I’m just wondering whether more energy should go into supporting the groups within Bangladesh that are lobbying the government, as well as the buying companies. This interesting article talking about the positive example of Vietnam discusses this a bit (via Jesse Anne O)

THOUGHTS?


* a dress and a pair of trousers last summer. I also bought a couple of maternity things in H&M, but that was more neccessary, so I regret it less

photo source

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lily 10 May 2013, 9:02 am

    ‘ “When I see a top for £5, I know that the people making it can’t have been compensated fairly”. And I guess that’s true, but equally a top costing £50, or £500 does not in any way whatsoever suggest that labour conditions were better. All it means is that company spends more on marketing, and maybe materials, and makes a larger profit.'”

    With that – I totally agree, which is why I would rather boycott the expensive shops who make huge profits off of the £140 jacket than the cheap shops who actually don’t make that much profit per £8 t-shirt.
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    • Franca 10 May 2013, 10:45 am

      I see that logic, though there are a lot of other reasons why I don’t want to buy from cheaper companies. I try to avoid the highstreet altogether really.

  • Kerry 10 May 2013, 9:35 am

    So much of our current economy seems to be based on what is happening on the high street – whether people are spending more or less than x time in the past seems to be the current indicator of how the economy is doing. I don’t believe this has always been the marker of how well or badly things are going so I find this change interesting. You’re right that people just need to buy less stuff instead of the same amount of cheaper stuff but it will be very hard to make that change.
    I also bought some maternity wear from H&M recently, made in Cambodia, and later read about the poor pay and conditions and felt bad. Not that I shouldn’t have guessed that anyway really.
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    • Franca 10 May 2013, 11:02 am

      I think they use high street spending as an indicator of consumer confidence as much as a measure of economic performance. Also maybe because the UK almost doesn’t really do anything other than retail and financial services any more, it’s more important. In Germany, they’re always going on about the value of exports, but I’m guessing that’s pretty low in Britain. Anyway, I don’t know! I know H&M no better than anyone else, but at least I really needed a pair of maternity jeans, whereas god knows I did not need another dress! I did get a load of stuff off gumtree later on, and if I have another pregnancy I won’t be buying any more!

  • Roobeedoo 10 May 2013, 10:29 am

    You are right – there are no “perfect” companies out there: if they use recycled materials, they still manufacture their “ethical” shoes in a sweatshop in China (my Eco Sneaks – damn it!) This consumptive culture is relatively recent – my husband was born in 1935 and was brought up with austerity and make do and mend and cannot understand my desire for “new things”. He basically wears two shirts and two pairs of trousers until they are beyond repair. But I have to work “in the real world” where all my colleagues devour the latest gossip celebrity magazines and expect to go shopping every Saturday. My Me-Made stance is the subject of much curiosity and confusion. I make more than I “need”, probably out of some misguided urge to appear semi-normal! I recently blogged about a UK handmade company with good ethical credentials (ha ha maybe you meant me!) and was conscious that I was promoting further probably unnecessary consumption… but at least if people put their money towards fewer items which are produced in an ethical way, slowly slowly they might have less, but better, stuff…? That is the position I am coming towards: have less, but better, stuff.
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    • Meg 10 May 2013, 10:59 am

      Roobeedoo, I share your me-made dilemna. I take a naughty delight in answering “where did you get that from” with “Oh this, it’s Maison Meg” but like you I probably make more than I need because I enjoy the process behind making your own. The toughest thing about the Wartime Wardrobe Challenge for me is finding sensible ways to redirect the time and energy that I would spend on making new clothes.
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    • Franca 10 May 2013, 11:19 am

      Not at all! I meant blogs that specialise in sustainable fashion and often just post post after post of pictures of stuff that makes you want to buy stuff. (though I find shopping blogs like that pretty boring anyway). I get that not buying anything doesn’t make for particularly interesting blogging content, but still it would be nice to see a bit more balance or some recognition that if you buy this stuff, it is better than other choices but not neccessarily actively good which is usually a message totally taken for granted.

      Also Livia Firth and her green carpet challenge. It just doesn’t seem that amazing to me that if you chuck thousands and thousands of pounds at clothes you are wearing ONCE that you can find things that have some ethical aspect about them. I know very little about her, but have taken a total dislike to her after she ‘killed’ 11 1930s dresses for her Oscar gown: http://www.retrochick.co.uk/2011/03/02/livia-firth-oscars-dress/

  • Meg 10 May 2013, 10:49 am

    Franca, I cannot tell you how pleased I am to see this piece! Like you I cannot vote with my purse as I do not frequent fast fashion retailers. Also, I am convinced that just buying more Fairtrade products is not the solution. As a society and economy were are missing two key issues. On the one hand we need to get over the obsession with growth that fuels an economy of ever more stuff – which does not makes us happy, depletes natural resources and relegates people to disposable resources in the production process. On the other, we need to move beyond our obsession with cheap and start paying the real cost of the things we need. I know that is not a popular message in a time of recession and that some people are really struggling to make ends meet but we do need a culture change so we start to appreciate the value of things.

    • Franca 10 May 2013, 11:20 am

      agree agree agree!

  • Cloud of Secrets 10 May 2013, 2:28 pm

    I’ve felt some similar conundrums. I don’t go out and buy ethical, sustainable, fair trade things because I simply don’t need more stuff. The family budget doesn’t need it, the household doesn’t need it, and my minimalist tendencies don’t need it.

    I’m not an active secondhand shopper for the same reason. And I don’t haunt Etsy or the like — I admire the crafters there, but I don’t need their stuff, and my friends and family really don’t need the most of the things as gifts. If I know they’d enjoy having an Amazon gift card, that is where I’ll put the family dollar, not on a scarf they may or may not love.

    What few things I buy, I have a definite need for them, and I have shopped for them carefully, with a mind toward long use and the family budget. My few purchases might come new from a name brand, or used from Goodwill, or from a local art and craft sale, or *gasp* from Target. They might come from a local independent merchant, or from Amazon. The key words here being “few,” “need,” and “long use.” My dollars follow good design and lasting quality.
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  • Bella Q, The Citizen Rosebud 12 May 2013, 7:37 pm

    You tackle some serious questions and I like the way you handle it- no clean answers we all just try to do the best that we can. I think the system is broken, so there won’t be an easy fix. We consume as a culture and dispose. This is toxic and unsustainable and the price we pay for it are human lives and quality of life. I am trying not to be such a consumer but its difficult. If I grew my own food, and focused less on the new and the wants, in the long run, it would contribute better towards society- one would hope, but the reality makes all this rather difficult. We all need money to pay bills, and the cycling continues. Great thoughts and post.
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  • Ceri 13 May 2013, 7:34 am

    Interesting post and I definitely agree with what you are saying. I too wondered whether to write to CEO’s of companies. I only buy from ethical/ sustainable brands but could definitely do better by buying less. I do think by supporting these brands and posting about fair trade etc, helps to change the industry a little but the whole consumption thing is a difficult one to change even for me and I truly believe it is something that we really need to do. Whilst no one really seems to have an answer, I think we need to keep trying to make a difference in any way that we can.
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  • jesse.anne.o 13 May 2013, 6:01 pm

    Thanks for posting this, Franca.

    This part, in particular, gets my goat:

    “We HAVE to stop buying and producing stuff, and we HAVE to find a way for people to earn a livelihood without endlessly chasing economic growth through the churning out of more stuff**, or the next generation will be completely screwed. It is for this reason that I am feeling pretty ambivalent about a lot of sustainable/ethical fashion blogs. It’s all very well saying ‘look at this new fairtrade/60% upcycled/handmade in Britain company and all their beautiful stuff!’, but ultimately it’s still sending the message that we can somehow shop our way out of this.”

    I think the perspective that the Wartime Wardrobe Challenge has brought me – with regards to purchasing levels being largely a social construct – has been somewhat valuable. The next step is really how do we create a culture where buying less is the norm? To Caryn Ginsburg’s point – how do we make that Fun, Easy and Popular? Especially when attention spans for most of the general population range mostly from oooooooh shiny! to, well, oohshinyoohshinyoohshiny!

    They say it takes 10 years for cultural change to happen, but do we have 10 years and are we even at the starting point?

  • Clare (Arthur & Henry) 15 May 2013, 12:26 pm

    Really interesting and thoughtful piece. I tweeted it – hope that’s OK.

    Given that we’re a clothing company it might seem odd for me to be saying I agree with you that we all buy too much stuff. Why we started was to encourage men who do have to wear decent shirts to switch from one that is detrimental to people and planet to ours which are organic and made by people treated decently. So hopefully it’s a) not something they wouldn’t be buying anyway and b) they’re good quality so won’t wear out as quickly.

  • Lorena 10 July 2013, 9:24 pm

    This is an interesting piece Franca – living in a 3rd world country that wants to appear to the world as 1st world – it hits close to home.
    Even though we do not have clothing factories here (very few, good standards and reasonable fair pay) there is absolutely no conscience whatsoever on what we import.
    Where it comes from, what it’s made of, nothing — all that matters is wether it’s cheap or not.
    It’s totally disgraceful, in fact we produce over 6 tons of garbage per inhabitant.
    Recycling is done by the private sector while the government could care less –
    When you say ” They’re all Scandinavian social enlightenment in Denmark and Germany, but will treat their workers like crap in countries that allow them to get away with it. Being good in some places does not necessarily translate.” It makes me think of how companies might just answer to this that the “abide by the law” without considering that not all legal is moral.