Buying cheap clothing kills people – doesn’t it?

How should we respond to the Bangladesh clothing factory disaster?

It’s two weeks since the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh collapsed. So far more than 800 1000 bodies have been fished out of the rubble. Nobody seems to know how many more there might be.

Most – if not all – the people who worked in this factory complex made garments. Quite a few of them for named High St brands. Cheap labour for cheap clothing.

Who is to blame – the owner; the system; you and me?

The owner of the factory has been arrested – and has become a hate figure. People are calling for the death penalty for Mohammad Sohel Rana. He’s been pilloried as a gangster who chose a dodgy route to success. In an all too familiar narrative he has become the “baddy” – slave master personified in one identifiable, punishable form.

The Pope has got involved – aiming his criticism at the system and the profit seeking culture that creates low paid working conditions.

“Not paying a fair wage, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking to make a profit, that goes against God,”

Some companies – notably Disney – have pulled out of Bangladesh

The politicos on Any Questions (decent UK BBC radio show) were keen to engage in a round of “who’s to blame?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly they concluded that:

a) Politicians, regulators, governments were not to blame. The laws are fine, this disaster couldn’t have been avoided with tougher legislation.

b) Retailers were to blame quite a bit – it’s their job to police standards. Drilling cost out of the supply chain was bound to create this kind of event. They should have done more.

c) Most of all we the consumers are to blame. We should vote with our wallets and simply refuse to pay low, low prices for clothing.

Simple – let’s just not buy the clothes…

It’s all too easy in the (still) affluent economies to have these kinds of sentiments. To have a middle class angst that our demand for low prices has created injustices in the supply chain. The same thing is going on in food right now. Our insatiable appetite for bewilderingly low priced ready meals has caused – at the very least – some incentive to cut corners in the food chain, not to say the suspicion that there is something systemically wrong.

So…yes, maybe it really is our fault. If we had any kind of moral backbone we wouldn’t buy these cheap clothes and we wouldn’t eat cheap food. Would we?

It’s not as simple as that

For a start cheap food and clothing is a necessity for many people living in these so called affluent societies. The erosion of prices and the ‘global efficiencies’ of the supply chain have helped many people eat more healthily and clothe their children. That’s not to excuse every £1 T-shirt but we should recognise that “voting with your wallet” simply isn’t an an option for everyone.

And then there’s the much more complex, much more nuanced reality of what’s going on in the supply chain.

It was during a trip to India with Leaders Quest that I first realised that I had assumptions and prejudices in this area. We were in a slum north of Mumbai and happened across a “factory” full of kids and young folk making leather belts for a (very) well known High St brand.

Inside the slum factory
Inside the slum factory

A happier bunch of people I have scarcely seen – they were far, far from my mental vision of malnourished slaves chained to their workbench. They simply didn’t conform to what I had been conditioned to expect. My fault for not opening my eyes earlier.

Later we went to see some people who had nothing – no rights to the land they were squatting on and would shortly be evicted from, no roads, no running water, no toilets. They were poor in a way that is rarely encountered.

But what would bother me – property, road, sanitation – is not what bothered them. They were worried about the prices of onions -which had rocketed recently. Most noticeable of all though was just how very, very clean everything was. The kitchen (pictured) was tidier than any I have ever been in.

Not what abject poverty is supposed to look like?
Not what abject poverty is supposed to look like?

What they valued and what I thought they would value, they should value, were simply not the same. My cosy, (western?), outlook meant that I was unconsciously judging these people – and applying completely the wrong standards in doing so.

I’d jumped to a conclusion without looking first.

Which is what’s happening in the initial response to the Bangladesh factory collapse. The very last thing Bangladesh needs is for a boycott of its most important export sector (nearly 80%). The last thing it needs is for us to vote with our wallets by spending our money elsewhere.

A lot of people depend on those clothes
A lot of people depend on those clothes

There’s a lot wrong – the building was dodgy and it’s not the only one (90% meet no building code), the garment sector has undue political influence in Bangladesh, the wages are too low (one fifth of China). None of this will be fixed by a boycott.

Don’t boycott, buy better. Brands can help – a bit. 

In the rubble there’s evidence of Primark, Joe Fresh, Kik and Benetton – not to mention the countless own-label brands being produced in the building.

This makes those of us in the brand business a bit uneasy – at least it should. Brands are – at heart – badges of quality. The mark on the cow guaranteed its origin – how it had been produced. Brands helped the buyer make better decisions.

But nothing of the sort is going on here. When we buy these branded garments little or nothing helps us understand the conditions in which they were made. And in an echo of the food scares there’s a sense that the brands themselves may not know exactly which factories are making their clothes.

But something like ‘fairtrade’ could and should help. A simple but powerful mark that communicates to the buyer the conditions under which something was made. It won’t fix everything but it will help. It’s not easy to understand why it hasn’t happened yet. It’s a brand failure.

This disaster might spark some improvement in terrible buildings, and also (let’s hope) in better deals for underpaid workers. A boycott – right now – would be damaging and unhelpful.

So ignore the politicians. Buy better. Vote with your wallet.

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