Last week, I was devastated to hear that more than 300 workers were killed when a factory collapsed in Bangladesh, just as I was devastated when more than 100 workers were killed in a factory fire last year. Both of these incidents happened since my visit to Bangladesh last fall with Save the Children Canada, where I had the opportunity to visit villages and city slums, and see how people in rural and urban Bangladesh live.
I saw people who were desperate. Families begging on the street. A man with no legs moving along the sidewalk using just his arms. Children who were essentially 24/7 slaves in a stranger's home. I learned about the extreme poverty and hunger in some areas and discovered that two-thirds of girls are married before their 18th birthday.
But I also saw hope. I saw a country in transition. I saw the ways that rapid growth combined with sustainable development programs like those supported by Save the Children, is changing the lives of millions of people for the better. I met school children who dreamed of being doctors or lawyers or teachers or owning their own embroidery or car repair business -- dreams they could fulfill because their parents had jobs. I met teenagers in youth training programs learning to sew and work on electronics, so that they could get a job and make a better life for themselves and their children.
After the fire and the collapse, the initial response of many Westerners is to boycott "Made in Bangladesh" clothing, to punish the companies that source clothing there, and to seek out "Made in Canada" or "Made in USA" labels instead. There is nothing wrong with shopping locally. It has a lot of benefits, of course. But it also has its limitations (often less variety and greater cost) and ultimately doesn't do anything to help the plight of people working in poor conditions in Bangladesh. If you boycott companies that produce goods in Bangladesh, you don't create better working conditions in Bangladesh, you put people out of a job. Instead of a dangerous job and uncertain future they have no job and no future. Stephanie Nolen from the Globe and Mail wrote a detailed and excellent article with her thoughts on the issue and examples of the types of factories she saw while she was in Bangladesh -- I highly recommend reading it.
If Boycotting Isn't the Answer, What Is?
A lot of people have suggested that Western companies sourcing in Bangladesh need to put greater pressure on their suppliers to provide safe working conditions. What that usually means is that Western buyers put a clause in the contract saying that they have to provide safe working conditions and then they do an annual audit. In the meantime, they continue to turn a blind eye to what is happening in the factories, while putting significant time, cost, and volume pressures on suppliers. A crack in the building's foundation? Even if the rich factory owners wanted to fix it, they couldn't possibly shut down to do the repairs without breaching the terms of their contracts or losing significant business.
PVH Corp, which owns Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and other brands has been proactively working with labour rights organizations, unions, and non-governmental organizations to establish a Memorandum of Understanding that would improve safety. Some of the key components of the MOU include:
- Hiring a Chief Inspector to design and implement a safety inspection program covering all of the major factories supplying the participating brands;
- Publicly disclosing lists of the factories being inspected, as well as a list of any factories that fail to fix problems;
- Establishing a complaints mechanism for workers to identify high-risk factories;
- Implementing a fire safety training program for all workers, managers, and other staff, and allowing union representatives access to workers for continuing training;
- Creating functioning health and safety committees in all participating factories; and
- Conducting a rigorous review of building standards and regulations to advise the Bangladeshi government on standards.
The full text of the proposed Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement provides further details.
PVH wants to get a number of other Western brands to sign on to the agreement and work collaboratively to implement it. Individual factories often do work for multiple brands and there is strength (and cost efficiency) when brands cooperate on this type of thing. Sounds great, right? Well, it was a good idea until Walmart and the Gap (Old Navy, Banana Republic) outright refused to help pay for necessary safety upgrades.
The Clean Clothes Campaign is urging brands to sign the safety agreement. The Maquila Solidarity Network is asking for this too and has links set up that will help you send a message specifically to the brands and to the Bangladeshi government.
In addition to speaking out and putting pressures on the brands, I'm making conscious choices about where I spend my money. When I was in Bangladesh, we went shopping at Aarong, a fair trade shopping centre (see picture on the right). Here in Canada, I've opted recently for buying clothing at the Tommy Hilfiger outlet (to support their leadership on the safety agreement), at Canadian stores that practice ethical sourcing like Mountain Equipment Co-Op and Terra20, and at local businesses like the Workshop Boutique that carry Canadian designers. I'm not anti-trade. I support a sustainable mix of ethical trade and supporting local business.
Not everyone can necessarily walk away from cheap clothes, although sales at the Tommy Hilfiger outlet are not really more expensive than shopping at Joe Fresh. Second hand stores and clothing swaps are another great sustainable option, although they do nothing to help the Bangladesh economy. I know that not everyone will be able to walk away from Joe Fresh or Walmart or Old Navy, but I do hope that people will take the time to tell the company that they expect better. A couple of cents on a pair of jeans isn't going to make them go from affordable to luxury, but it could save hundreds and thousands of lives.
Have the events in Bangladesh made you re-think where and how you buy your clothing?