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Boycotting "Made in Bangladesh" Will Do More Harm Than Good

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?




« Do We Need Corporations to Empower Us? | Main | Lean In? Sure -- Been There, Done That -- Now What? »

Reader Comments (9)

Thank you so much for this post Annie. I am a mom blogger from Bangladesh and can't thank you enough for the broader perspective.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLail | With A Spin

Whlie I do boycott some companies-I think it is an action that helps the boycotter maintain awareness. For real change we must use political action and advocacy and get laws changed. Besides- activism through shopping is an activism that only the rich can choose easily.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAurora

thank you so much for this Annie - this helps a lot. My husband and I have been having many discussions right along these lines - my first thought was 'made in Canada', then we talked about the impact that has and went back to issues about safety, fair pay and so on. We read many articles and write ups about it.

I think it's really about being mindful of where I shop, something that over time I'm putting more and more thought into. It's one of the reasons we shop Fair Trade when we can (and almost exclusively for coffee/chocolate/baking supplies now) - we started to really think about where our goods were not only coming from but how.

I am really happy you mention some specific leaders like Tommy Hilfiger - as a huge TH fan I had no idea! This opens up many options for my spring shopping, including local shops like you said. My hope to is balance out global and national purchases.

Thanks again so summarizing both sides and giving a balance to the conversation.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Thanks for this, Annie. I too am really conflicted about this. I'm aware that boycotting stores isn't going to do much - and it really limits where I can spend our small single income. My husband and I have been talking about this a lot, and are finding it difficult to come up with alternatives. Consignment, yes, making some of the kids' clothes, possibly. But if there was a way to help rather than just remove myself, that would be better. Thanks for the links, and for some suggestions about reasonable places to shop. I'll be checking them out.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJuliette

I've struggled with "cheaper" as selling point for long time, completely missing the point that it is not cheaper for ME, it is cheaper for company. 3 dollars more on $30 trousers certainly will not break my budget (unless I have 100s of trousers, but that is altogether another story - overconsumption), but one dollar less on 100.000 trousers H&M is selling makes for a nifty profit margin and happy Wall street and happy stockholders. And it is every industry/market we turn to. I'm trying not to get blocked by size of the problem, or thinking "if can't get it perfect, don't even bother", so I'm trying to shift my investment choices where I think it makes sustainable sense. But it is not easy. Even the companies that actively tout their "ethical" practices are far from sustainable or fair on global level. But I can't even hold them accountable for all of that - the Market demands bigger, better, cheaper and stock exchange rewards only greatest return without any horizons (or even "just around the corner").
*I* do have wallet power (being first-world inhabitant), and I'm trying to exercise that power judicially. And information like this makes it easier to choose. Thank you for all the links.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarija

I was thinking the same thing when I passed by Joe Fresh the other day... but then I thought of the jobs created there and how they are able to support their families. However there are too many sweatshops in third-world countries with poor conditions and no safety rules. A safety standards agreement is absolutely necessary.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaria

Great post!

My main concern is that we have an economy built on buying things that, really, we don't need. No on needs new clothes every season "just because." Thrift and consignment shops are filled to the brim with enough clothes to cover almost every body in the world with a four-season wardrobe. Is it fashionable? No. But with concerns over clear water and sustainability of all resources, "buy more to improve the lives of others" seems itself unsustainable.

People have to do something to work and make money. But we're continuing this consumer system on tenuous ground right now.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJosette Plank

I have worked closely with call centres in Bangalore and Hyderabad offa and on for 8 yrs regular On site inspection from head office with accountability to employee safety in senior managers goals is the best way to fix it in the short term. If the shareholders care, management will care.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy mc

Great post! Thought I'd share the response I got to an email to AE saying that my daughters and I would not spend money there if they did not sign Bangladesh Safety Accord:

Dear AE Shopper,

It is critical to us that we stand on the right side of history, that when we look back we can say with confidence that we positively impacted the lives of the factory workers not just in Bangladesh, but also across our entire supply chain.

To that end, I want to provide you with more insight on our supply chain compliance efforts and initiatives. Due to the strong compliance team in place, we have in-depth visibility and oversight to the working conditions in AEO factories. We have a solid program with ethical guidelines in place but we know we can do more.

Currently, AEO conducts frequent audits of all our apparel factories focusing on health and safety, treatment of employees and working conditions. We are stepping up our efforts by not only increasing our factory visits, but also conducting fire safety training and building structure reviews. We are also partnering with other brands and industry groups to address systemic challenges in Bangladesh and other sourcing countries.

We will continue to source from Bangladesh and support the improvement of working conditions through our engagement with factories. It is our responsibility to the tens of thousands of workers who produce our products.

We want to assure you that we are committed to providing a safe environment for the workers, and we will not compromise our efforts for any reason.

So a partial answer -- and a quick response that says they are taking this seriously. Yes, a policy of enough might be for the best, but realistically, I need a way to navigate these waters with my teenagers. Thanks for being part of the conversation!

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

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