A couple of weeks ago, GV and I walked uptown to take a look at the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Along the way we moseyed into a Banana Republic store. As we meandered through the women’s section, we saw a beautiful skirt.
At first I thought it was washed leather. But it was a spray coated twill skirt which had a washed, antique leather-like appearance. Whoever designed and made it did an excellent job.
As I was looking for the price tag, I estimated the retail price to be upwards of $200, or more. It looked (relatively) expensive. To my surprise it was only $89.00. How did they do that? Then I looked at the “made in” label. Oh, Bangladesh. No wonder.
Bangladesh has been a huge and important source for apparel brands over the of years. B’desh has been pumping out apparel for decades, but only recently since the prices in China have been rising have brands large and small from the U.S. and Europe been migrating significant (increasing) amounts of production to Bangladesh. It’s one of the cheapest places in the world to make garments.
Two weeks ago there was a fire in a Bangladesh garment factory that made world news because of the number of people who died–120. The initial reports tell us that the factory didn’t have proper exits, extinguishers didn’t work, exits were locked and it was overcrowded. No need to name names, but a couple of well-known brands made clothes in that factory.
As consumers, we demand the prices from the cheapest countries in the world. We espouse “made in the USA” but we don’t open our wallets to pay homemade prices.
It wasn’t long ago that the brand I worked for had an extremely difficult time policing the factories right here in our own country. Some sweat shops mirrored the worst in foreign countries. They were very deft at fooling inspectors. The sweat shops existed only because we demand the cheapest products we can find. Manufacturing shops here that complied with treating fellow humans fairly couldn’t compete. Production had to move. It’s recently been moving in a big way to Bangladesh. In a country where the monthly labor rate is barely $50/month, it’s hard to find a hotel room for $200/day.
Migrating apparel production simply follows the path of least resistance. The resistance being how much we’ll pay for a dress. Or to dress.
The brands who manufactured in that B’desh factory probably did (some) cursory compliance inspections. Obviously not enough. Having been in that world, I often wondered why buyers from one country must also be in the business of monitoring compliance of factories in foreign countries.
Shouldn’t governments be in the business of policing their own states, of protecting their own citizens? But I guess state police can’t be everywhere. So there is a responsibility of the foreign buyer to be ” in the know.” But governments could help by making more visible examples of those who cheat systems that harm fellow humans. That goes for the owners of garment factories where workers are harmed (and any executive of a company who bends laws so out of proportion that they are unrecognizable — think large US corporate/bank executives who got away with committing severe negligence at the expense of many others). Jail for life seems appropriate.
The apparel production in China, India, Bangladesh and others is highly subsidized by their governments. Subsidies of any kind end up creating an imbalance. Apparel production has flooded into Bangladesh in part because of these internal subsidies. Garment factories doing business with large brands rely on their consistent production. The large brands have become particularly good at squeezing pennies out of the product. It then becomes tempting for some factory owners take further subsidies into their own hands by negligently treating their workers. The foreign buyer then bears the burden of constantly policing against this negligence, which requires a small army of people.
That’s not to say there aren’t excellent, well-run, state-of-the-art garment factories in Bangladesh. There are many. And they’ve become experts at making garments which are not only tailored for mass market “cheap” brands, but now also for many higher-end brands.
If we design and bring a brand to market, we have an obligation to make sure it wasn’t made at the expense of fellow humans. In our globalized world, it would sure be a lot easier if governments policed susceptible industries a little better, or at least make more vivid examples of offenders.
In the meantime, we’ll keep buying lots of dresses, jeans, shirts, and other apparel from Bangladesh and other low-cost countries. So get that nice dress. Look and know where it’s made. And dress nice. Because you can.