May Day is especially poignant this year, falling only a week after 386 people tragically died and 2,500 were injured in a garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. Thousands of workers paraded through Central Dhaka earlier today, demanding both safety at work and the death penalty for Mohammed Sohel Rana, the man who owned the building and is expected to be charged with negligence and illegal construction.
Protestors marched through Dhaka chanting “My brother has died. My Sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless.”
And while their protests are calling on government action in Bangladesh, I think it’s a cry we need to listen to here in North America as well. As consumers in the west, we are directly implicated in the events that took place on April 24; not only does the Bangladeshi government have a role to play in preventing such senseless tragedies, but so do we.
Bangladesh’s garment industry is worth $20 billion annually, with large American garment companies employing well over 3 million workers in the country. Workers in these factories are often earning the lowest minimum wage in the world for factory workers – about $37 a month—with factory owners claiming they cannot raise wages without jeopardizing business from multinational firms.
As consumers, we can help change this picture.
I don’t propose that the solution is to simply stop buying anything with a “Made in ...” label that doesn’t end in the US or Canada. Don’t get me wrong, I love to support local businesses. But I’m also a firm believer in the power of business to create economic opportunities in developing countries. When done fairly, these companies create jobs, affording workers the opportunity to earn an income and build a better future. Economic theory would have us believe that the increased demand for labor puts upward pressure on wages and living conditions will rise.
The problem though: Here in the west, $9 tees and $19 jeans have become normalized. (Those are in fact the prices advertised on the Joe Fresh subway posters I see on my daily commute, one of the companies that sourced from the factory where the collapse occurred.) The sheer buying power of these goliath corporations puts them in the position to tell factory owners to produce for the prices they demand or else they’ll take their business elsewhere... and all to fuel our addiction to cheap colorful jeans that will fall out of style as soon as the season changes.
So as consumers, we need to become knowledgeable about the items we buy – not just where they were made, but more importantly whether workers were fairly compensated and work in safe conditions when making what we buy.
Tips to affect change and buy better:
- Look for Certifications: Fair Trade companies are committed to going above and beyond to create safe and productive working environments, while also paying fair wages. Visit Fair Trade Federation for a list of member companies or search ‘Fair Trade’ on Ethical Ocean. I also like to look for OEKO-TEX certified garments, which tests all materials that go into garments (even zipper and threads) for harmful chemicals and substances. Not only does the OEKO-TEX label mean that you can be confident you’re not wearing a garment laced in nasty chemicals, but you can also be sure the workers who made it weren’t exposed day in and day to harmful substances. The OEKO-TEX 1000 certification also ensures working conditions are safe and that the company complies with social criteria (doesn’t employ children, pays fair wages, gives vacation time, etc.).
- Do Your Research: With access to so much information these days, there really is no excuse to not research the brands you buy from. Green America’s Responsible Shopper website warns consumers about brand-name atrocities, be they environmental or labor related. Good Guide rates over 200 apparel brands (and they have an app so you can use it while you’re shopping). Finally, buy from shops you trust that do their research into the brands they work with (sound like anyone we all know and love?!).
- Buy Less, Buy Used: One of the most common complaints I hear is that shopping ethically can get expensive. It’s not a universal truth, but yes, when we pay prices that cover fair wages, safe working conditions, etc. it costs more. I think the trick is to buy less. Rather than buy a new $19 pair of jeans every season (they’ll probably only last that long anyway), spend the money to buy one pair that will last a few years. When you really can’t justify or afford the higher price tag, go to a used clothing store and buy a previously loved item.
- Demand Better: Ask lots of questions of the brands you shop from. Send messages to companies calling for them to change their practices (social media is awesome for making these demands public!). Finally, if you’re buying from brands that source from Bangladesh, ask if they’ve signed on to the Bangladesh Building and Fire Safety Agreement, developed by the Clean Clothes Campaign along with local and global unions and labor rights organizations. The agreement is a proposal for a sector-wide initiative of independent building inspections, workers’ rights training, public disclosure, and a long-overdue review of safety standards. If the company hasn’t signed it, ask what they’re waiting for.
Every time you spend money you are choosing to be a part of the solution or part of the problem. This May Day, let’s resolve to be part of the solution from here on out.