The garment factory fire in Bangladesh has ignited a whirlwind of civil unrest locally and outrage in the western world as consumers slowly discover the true price of their cheap clothing from popular names like Wal-Mart, JC Penny’s, The Gap and more. Clashes over low wage workers, safety conditions and overseas monitoring have happened all throughout the modern age with increasing scrutiny as tragedies half a world away highlight exploitation of people by wealthy entities. Whether that’s clothing in this forgotten part of the world, i-pods and i-pads made in China under questionable working practices or the heightened frustration of die- hard Americans sick of seeing everything they want to purchase imported from countries getting harder and harder to pronounce, it appears change is on the horizon. Not only did the recession here cause people to pay more attention to where what they were spending their money on was actually coming from, news segments like ABC’s Made in America show other citizens how they can support their local and national economies by grabbing popular products produced right here in the US of A. And now top American businesses are taking notice of what is happening in little known areas of the globe; many signing a pledge to send diplomats, overseers in to work with their on location factories, negotiate with people and government to ensure safe conditions, adherence to local law and common sense building codes and upgrades along with a push to increase their minimum wage. But is this really about chastising American, European consumers asking if they need all those clothes while reporting we buy twice as much as we did 20 years ago, or is it about something much more systemic and much older than current buying trends no matter where you are in the fully westernized world or a budding westernized nation.
Inevitably delving into these issues there is always a complicated matrix of things going on that cannot be boiled down to one singular factor, a singular trend and cannot be fixed by simply choosing to buy American, choosing to buy local, choosing to buy less, regardless of how much the non-consumer advocate, exposé book writers would have us believe. Truth be told, US garment makers pulling out of the country would likely destroy their fragile, poor economy as the industry employs millions there. Part of the multitude of contributions causing the problems in Bangladesh is corruption, an unholy alliance between politicians and the clothing empires, further police rarely arresting unscrupulous factory owners, safety negligent managers, both giving an air of the untouchable to the business recognized as “big factory,” only fueling failure by locals to follow their own laws; when the owner of the factory at the center of current controversy and debate was arrested, he was apprehended trying to flee across the border into India after being rescued from the rubble of his own business. Said business had a history of dubious safety violations insisting his building was safe after video showed cracks in walls from as late as last year, 3 stories added onto the building minus proper permits, managers having a repeated habit of ordering workers back into a factory after they had evacuated in an emergency such as the fire that has now claimed up to 1,100 lives. Reality is if businesses were regulated according to the parameters of Bangladeshi law or the garment establishments subject to the same rules as every other business operated there, no one would be having this conversation because there would be no need for it. When the building was seen with cracks in it by officials it should have necessitated additional safety review and been given so many days to correct the problems or have been shut down until it was safe to operate; no doubt someone with a basic knowledge of architecture could spot potential safety hazards whether they took the time to trace the permits, discover the lack thereof, or not. Note too this man was arrested, stands to be behind bars for quite some time, perhaps even barred from owning a similar business in the future which means two key things; A- the laws are in place amounting to a huge first step toward correcting lack of safety and an absence of justice. Also B-that county’s officials are getting the message whether as a result of international pressure or their own citizens’ protests, they no longer intend to tolerate business as it has always been done. We’ve seen this before too, building codes worldwide are not the same as building codes in the US, such was true in the 2004 tsunami, the earthquake in Haiti, even buildings in China have collapsed because of suspected substandard construction; in contrast we’ve seen one of the most prepared nations still suffering under the on slot of an earthquake, tsunami and major meltdown of a nuclear reactor at the Fukushima power plant. Look at the devastation marking the Jersey shore and you see what can happen regardless of what building codes are or aren’t in place, making blaming westernized demand of cheap goods for perpetuating such deplorable conditions short sighted as well as counterproductive. Aside from the unvarnished truth, like it or not we now function in a global economy, signifying not just that businesses will always be on the lookout for cheaper labor, cheaper but quality materials, better, more efficient ways to cut costs, but also brings with it the question of what are pooper countries supposed to do for a livelihood should America and other more developed nations pull out of this country in order to protest their labor practices? Keeping in mind this was not an American run operation; yes American brands were manufactured there yet factory ownership and management were local and locally controlled. This did not happen on the watch of an American boss, under the crooked nose of an American business person trying to cut corners but instead a crooked Bangladeshi doing the same. Sadly anytime you are manufacturing overseas you face these challenges; that this factory, factories like it, make clothes later sold to us is almost irrelevant beside a larger need for better building codes, quality building materials and the knowledge to build sound structures for people to work in, live in, shop in, receive medical care in. Who receives the end product is almost irrelevant beside the need for above board building inspectors, factory owners, managers who will adhere to common sense safety protocols, who will not bar exits to keep workers confined and working, who will not order people back into a building until cleared by proper emergency, structural integrity personnel and will not fire people from their job for refusing to go back into a smoke laced, unstable building, who will insist on the presence of smoke detectors and fire alarms to alert building occupants to danger.
Answering the question do we need all those clothes, in short, the response would be yes; first and foremost because 20 years ago we didn’t have the weather extremes we do now causing people in parts of Florida to need heating systems and sweaters for off weather years, translating into extreme cold lasting into what many consider spring and summer necessitating more winter clothing, other places needing shorts and tank tops that never have before. To say nothing of the record winter weather, shutting down cities, cutting off power and making doing laundry next to impossible for weeks at a time. One of the chief impacts of so called millennial generation’s entrance into the workforce is a tightening of dress codes on the job, a resurgence of formal business attire worn from the office to the boardroom; at the same time, 20 years ago we weren’t still coming out of a gripping recession pushing desperate people to nearly any lengths to land a job, land a better job, including higher end work clothing, making sure they have a full five-days-worth of suites exc. to better blend into their work culture, to keep their current job or receive that promotion. 20 years ago washer and dryer hook ups were standard in most apartment complexes even filtering down to some public housing projects; nowadays, in addition to banning pets and smoking, mandating the hanging of Christmas lights, more and more apartment complexes have elected to skip installing said hookups in favor of preventing fires due to misused dryers, dirty lint traps, flooding by unattended, malfunctioning washing machines forcing tenants to utilize laundry mats not always in buildings, or on property sites making this common chore a lot more arduous. And before the influx of comments on the laziness of Americans begins, consider the money funneled into coin laundry; suddenly a few extra $5 t-shirts from Wal-Mart, a couple extra collared men’s shirts for work, an extra $7 package of socks, repeat with underwear starts to make more financial sense than having to run to the laundry mat every week. Lost on the exposé book writer featured in NBC’s nightly news segment posing the supposedly moral consciousness question, is people who do their laundry more sporadically because they are disabled and space out household chores to accommodate their physical limitations while maintaining their independence; others depend on homecare services to complete such tasks and thanks to Medicaid spend downs and so forth don’t get enough services to do laundry every week according to the typical American household. Continuing some ailments cause accidents resulting in the use of more clothing combined with the washing situation translates into you have to buy, get more to function; not to mention not everything bought cheaply, in perceptions of excess, is clothing, shoes, handbags, scarves to meet the current years’ fashion, micro-fashion trends. Other items that might be bought in higher quantity either depending on how many people are in your family, living in your home, or are bought according to a specified quality include bath towels, hand towels, wash rags, sheets, pillows, pillowcases that do not activate allergies, do not aggravate skin irritations or cause significantly more pain when used, common practice for people with disabilities, diseases. Another possibility for perceived excess is someone in the home working a particularly dirty job needing to shower upon returning home; rather than always needing to run the washer and dryer they buy a few extra towels. Same thing if they work a job exposed to say, the stench of raw sewage, they have their own set of towels used after taking that post work shower and everyone else’s towels don’t get tainted with stink, all demonstrating there is more to American, probably UK buying habits than just following accelerated clothing trends.
However asking such a question demonstrates those who protest the loudest about where we get our clothing and the hidden cost of them, unsurprisingly white, middle class individuals with steady, stable jobs and apparently too much time on their hands are tone deaf to the core crux of the problem. First and foremost that they use this exact fire, where higher end name brands from Zara and H&M were made, to enfold items manufactured throughout Bangladesh and sold at Wal-Mart and JC penny, that are cheaper still, equating them as insultingly identical in as much as implying lower middle class, poor people buying Faded Glory at Wal-Mart should ask themselves if their kid needs socks or they need a replacement pair of jeans, something low cost for a job interview. Further proving the tone deaf nature of the comment, attitude and obviously misperception is, if American companies weren’t there, having their clothing produced there, someone else would be manufacturing something there, someone far less concerned than even than the most callous of our businessmen; giving way to what, sweat shops and child labor either there or begun here by amoral immigrants, coyote types making people work off their debt for being smuggled into the country, a phenomenon we already see too much of. Similarly, on that side of the world, it does no good to have solid building codes if their aren’t adequate materials to build with or they are so expensive businesses are forced to use existing spaces constructed from inferior parts and pieces or not have a business; it does little good to have all the building codes, regulations in the world but never enforce them or only enforce them in certain types of businesses typically bypassing the ones that need it most. Neither does it do any good to have those two things in place if owners and managers do not have to fear prosecution for breaking the law, if they can use their political connections to sidestep inspections, permits, forgo ensuring where you are building is indeed a safe place to build absent the shifting, sandy soil the debated factory was reportedly built on. Once again proof positive incensed Americans have tried to boil down a larger problem to its simplest common denominator by pushing citizens to do the morally correct thing in buying less cheap clothes thus choking off support to the negatives happening in obscure parts of the globe sadly missing the bigger picture.