Lessons From Bangladesh: The High Cost of Cheap Clothes

Photo Courtesy NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/04/24/178772697/dozens-killed-in-collapse-of-bangladesh-garment-complex

Several weeks ago in Bangladesh, an overcrowded garment factory collapsed in the middle of a work day, killing over 1,100 workers. I remember that in the days and weeks following the tragedy, that number kept climbing. And as it climbed, my anger, heartbreak, and frustration climbed as well.

A tragedy like this is always senseless. All these people didn’t have to die. Had building inspectors done their job, had companies focused more on safety and less on profits, had government officials been less corrupt, these garment workers could have been working in a safe, uplifting environment, instead of a dangerous, overcrowded deathbox.

What’s most disheartening is that this tragedy has done nothing to change the working conditions in Bangladesh. A few more US clothing companies signed safety agreements, a few petitions were signed by the public, and then, we all moved one. It’s done nothing to whet our appetite for cheap clothing. Garment exports from Bangladesh were up 12% in May, a total of $19 billion.

US clothing manufacturers account for 23% of Bangladesh clothing exports. While all of us can’t go over there and demand safer conditions for these workers, we can make a difference by reducing this percentage. We can choose to purchase clothes that are made ethically and responsibly. We can choose to buy products that are fairly traded and sustainably produced. We can shop consciously.

I know how easy it is to walk into Target, Wal-Mart, Pacific Sunware, JC Penny, or any other large retailer who sells “cheap” clothing, see something I like, and buy it. I’ve done it plenty of times, just like everyone has. The problem is that doing this means I’m probably supporting a business that violates basic human rights. I’m supporting businesses like the one who owned the building in Bangladesh…the one who make sure the fire exits were blocked and that workers spent 12-16 hours per day huddled over a sewing machine in overcrowded rooms.

There are many wonderful and amazing things about globalization. But one of the tragedies is that we’ve become desensitized to the people on the other end of the product we’re buying — the people who risk their lives every day just so we can purchase a t-shirt for $6.99.

Yes, fair trade goods are sometimes more expensive than their mass-made counterparts. Yes, sometimes you have to go out of your way to find them. But fair trade is fair. Fair trade means the person who made that product didn’t have to put their life at risk to feed their family just so you could have something wonderful.

When you shop fair trade, you can help make sure another Bangladesh doesn’t happen. It might seem like a very small and insignificant act. But when one person buys fair trade, and another person buys fair trade, our collective efforts can make a big impact. It can save lives.

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