Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A word on ethics

You may have been following news coverage of a terrible building collapse in Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza building housed five clothing factories as well as a bank and shops. The day before the collapse, inspectors had requested immediate evacuation after discovering large cracks in supporting columns. The bank and shops evacuated, but the garment factories continued production as usual.

More than 380 people have been confirmed dead, more than a thousand seriously injured and 900 more unaccounted for as rescue attempts have ceased. More than half the 3,122 people in the building were women, and some were children in a workers' creche in the building.

Australian clothing brands known to manufacture in Bangladesh include Target, Big W, Kmart, G-Star, Adidas, Duchamp and Cotton On. (My Big W 'work pants', aka pyjama pants, are made in Bangladesh.) Two brands known to be manufactured in the Rana Plaza are Mango and Benetton.

As a shopper and blogger of 'bargains' I feel dirty and complicit in the terrible working conditions that lead to such disasters. I've even commented uneasily about the conditions that enable super-cheap clothing. It's easy to take the moral high ground and say, "Well, I won't be shopping there any more!" or "I won't buy cheap clothes!" or "I'll only buy locally made clothes", but the situation is not that simple.

Some clothing companies deliberately obscure their supply chain so consumers won't know where the garments are made. Sometimes, they're not actively deceptive but simply don't know where the clothes are made because they rely on a network of contractors and subcontractors and don't always have a representative on the ground. Supply chains are really, really long – just see how many people it takes to produce a can of Coke.

Consumer pressure is mainly about making you feel good. It's unions, NGOs and governments who can more effectively agitate to prevent more such tragedies. For instance, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which remained the deadliest event in New York City until September 11, led to extensive labour law reform. Workers in Bangladesh have already been striking and picketing the Garment Makers' Association, with a list of five key demands for change. You can also sign a petition to help pressure the Bangladeshi government.

I will certainly be much more circumspect from now on about sharing bargain clothes with you. As I wrote, "Don't treat them disposably; wear them often and in the long term, as the building blocks of your wardrobe."