28 November 2012

Always Ask

[photographs copyright AP]

Many of you will have no doubt read the tragic news of the fire that broke out in a garment factory in Bangladesh claiming over 100 lives. According to the fire department there was a lack of fire exits in the building, a safety oversight which is unfortunately all too common. There are actually a number of deadly factory fires across the country every year, the result of which, as Amirul Haque Amin, president of Bangladesh's National Garment Workers Federation rather sadly points out is that, "Whenever a fire or accident occurs, the government sets up an investigation and the authorities - including factory owners - pay out some money and hold out assurances to improve safety standards and working conditions. But they never do it."

Clothing accounts for up to 80% of Bangladesh's $24 billion annual exports, almost a quarter of which goes to the US. With around 4500 factories, employing over two million people, with workers doing 12 to 14 hours shifts for less than $50 a month, the country creates much of the "affordable" fashion consumed the world over. The news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha recently reported that some 6000 people die every year in fires in Bangladesh. Indeed in 2010 21 workers died in a factory fire where they were manufacturing clothing for fast fashion retailer H&M. Blaming any one party in these numerous incidents seems somewhat counter-productive, however I would certainly hope all parties involved would feel the need to make drastic changes (although unfortunately here I feel the need to add - don't hold your breath).

The preferable first steps would be for the Bangladeshi government to implement stricter rules to ensure the welfare of its factory workers, clothing companies to hold contracted factories to higher standards, as well as introducing greater transparency to their "Made In -" labels. However whether these steps are   realistic is unfortunately not so easy to say. Companies will almost always try to maximise profit, so even were Bangladesh to improve conditions, production would no doubt shift to whichever other country could undercut their prices, and so the problem is not remedied, rather simply moved. Also I think it needs to be pointed out that even where companies are selling sweatshop-free clothing, that is not necessarily a catch-all guarantee (indeed I can think of a certain American clothing company I do not shop at due to their sexually-exploitive practices).

So what can we as consumers do? It seems that there are in reality rather few options, especially given the opaqueness of much of the information surrounding clothing manufacturing, making it difficult for the consumer to make a truly informed decision. I think we all know that when we buy immensely cheap clothing that someone along the way is paying the full price, but there seems to be a certain amount of apathy, or at least fatigue, towards this reality. Out of sight, out of mind. It is the same case with battery chickens providing us with cheap meat or faux fur that is actually anything but. People do not want to think about these things, for it is a very unpleasant reality. Indeed we hope that the companies selling the goods do this type of thinking for us, and although that would be an ideal situation, it is unfortunately not the case.  

I dislike the idea of telling people what they should or should not buy, after all we have to live with the results of our decisions. So I think it stands to reason that we should make that decision for ourselves, based upon all the available options. However what I would say is - always ask. The more we ask questions, the more we read, the more we look for information, the more informed a decision we are able to make, and thus hopefully making that decision a better decision. Of course we must necessarily rely on the information at hand, which can be subject to varying degrees of perspective (to put it delicately). However I think it is important because the more people that question, the higher the demand to find answers, or at the very least, it creates the platform for a broader discussion. This is not an issue that can be solved easily, but I think that just taking the time to ask questions is a good place to start. What did this actually cost?



  1. I definitely admire your content today.

    Such a sad and horrible thing to read.

    It is a good idea to see where you are buying from. And its always great to buy locally too.

  2. How incredibly sad. I try to have a knowledge of where what I buy comes from, and it can be overwhelming, but you're right always asking is the best way to go about it.

    (p.s. i can't believe i've been away from the blogging world for so long. i most definitely have some reading to catch up on. hope all is well!)

  3. I don’t want to wear clothing has very sad story behind.

    Very difficult problem too. Because if fast clothing company disappear, many worker loose their job.

    First, everybody (consumer side)should know what is going on.

    Hope top people of fast clothing company become less greedy, and have love to them. They are same human.

  4. You brought up very valid points. At the end of the day, we can't fight every battle because there's only so much effort one can exert in all aspects of life. Also we don't know how far down the supply chain we should look at to consider an item made in purely ethical environments.

    As a consumer, I feel like we are on the losing ground, hence I have resorted to buying less and supporting individual makers/purchasing second hand whenever I can, but I have to admit I am still not a saintly consumer.

  5. I don't know how I missed this on the news but that's awful and I wholeheartedly agree that as consumers, we often fuel this kind of exploitation of factory work. Great post Syed.

  6. Brilliantly written post Syed. I think as this century progresses, more and more people will wake up out of this dream that cheap is necessarily right or even a right… We are being confronted on a more and more regular basis by the realities of our consumer culture, be it fires in Bangladesh apparel factories or the effects of climate change… It's a huge shame that people like you and me are such a minority in our constant questioning (not only of the people and things around us that nobody else seems to notice, but also of ourselves and our own choices). I'm so happy that you do what you do and write so eloquently about it for your readers. I still don't understand at what point it was exactly that clothing became nearly valueless but it's up to us to show the true values and results of a global society that has been told a want is a need.