When I heard about the factory collapse in Bangladesh, I was heart-broken, but not surprised. The issue of the abysmal conditions of sweatshops has been close to my heart since I was a child, back when I genuinely believed that I was effecting change by boycotting Nike. As an adult, I see that this issue is far more complex than the boycott of a certain label, but I am so glad that what has happened in Bangladesh has increased consumer awareness of the horrendous human rights abuses that we have been supporting in the name of fashion.
I found out today that H&M has agreed to sign the Bangladesh Factory Safety Accord (along with Dutch retailer C&A, and Zara). While we still have a long way to go, and while it is certainly plausible that this is being done in order to diffuse the bad press these corporations have received in light of this tragedy, I don’t care what the reasons are behind doing the right thing as long as it gets done.
People all over the world have begun standing up to these corporations and demanding change, and I hope that this will continue. I long for the day when it is flat out illegal for developed world companies to operate unsafe factories anywhere, but we are headed in the right direction.
I read a post today over at Deeper Story, that explores the ethics of fashion. I did not agree with every point made in the post, but I did agree with the overall message–that when we buy something made by means of exploitation, we are just as guilty as the companies who are doing the exploiting.
Another point made in the article is that consumers all but force retailers into operating sweat shops by being unwilling to pay high prices for merchandise, and that our willingness to pay more would result in better work conditions for those in the developing world, followed by the idea that if factories in developing nations were to close, or if we were all to refuse to buy from large corporations, people in countries like Bangladesh would have their only income taken away.
There are several reasons I take issue with these latter points.
One, it is nearly impossible to find a major clothing corporation that does not employ the use of sweat labour. Whether we are paying $5 for a shirt or $95, chances are if it was purchased at the mall, it was made in a sweat shop.
Two, these corporations make enormous profits. They do not have to increase our prices. The solution lies in taking a hit to their profit margin in order to provide safe work conditions. I am well aware that the purpose of a corporation is to make money, but they need not do it at the expense of the lives of those who manufacture their goods.
Three, the trickle down effect is exactly that–a trickle. There is no reason why an employee should be working in such terrible conditions for wages on which they care barely survive, and I actually believe that there is no reason for them to be working for large multinational corporations, period. I believe that it would be far more effective if those of us in the developed world made an effort to help stimulate the local economies of poorer nations so that they can work for themselves.
For example, KIVA micro loans offers the opportunity for us to provide a $25 loan to someone in a third world nation. Once enough $25 loans have been provided, that person is able to increase their productivity and operate a thriving business. In doing so, they no longer need to ship their goods overseas to be consumed by us, but can afford to sell to their neighbours. They can employ members of their local community and spread the wealth within their own nation. The repayment rate of the loans is more than 98%, and once a loan has been repaid the lender can either take their money and walk, or reinvest in another company in order to help someone else. This method has potential to make the world a better place all around.
When those in the third world are given the tools to improve their own communities and no longer need to work for companies in North America and Europe, those companies will have less motivation to base their factories in the third world and can resume employing members of their own countries–which I’m sure we can all agree would be an enormous help to our failing economies. The environment is also protected by this model, because goods are not being shipped all over the globe and polluting our atmosphere. Win-win-win.
I am not naive enough to believe that it is just that simple, or that the entire world will be changed by this model. But I do believe that we need increased innovation to ensure that not only are we buying from companies with ethical practices, but that we are taking care of our global brothers and sisters and our planet in the process.
So while we are a long way off from where we need be, today I am grateful.
Keep voting with your dollars.
You are being heard.