Thoughts on Bangladesh and Cheap Clothes

bangladesh, working conditions, buy local, fast fashion, joe fresh, walmart

This was clearly not a safe place to work.

I’ve been sitting on this tragic story for a while, because I haven’t been sure how to approach this on the blog. Firstly, I should express that I am disgusted about the way the garment workers are treated in countries like Bangladesh, and I’m also horrified that big companies allow this kind of thing to happen. I’ve heard that the factory owners knew the building was in poor shape, but that they knew it would be cheaper to pay off $1,200 per family of a deceased in the case of a collapse, then it would be to actually fix the building. If this is the value they place on human life, then I am ashamed to be a consumer of brands that operate like this.

bangladesh, working conditions, buy local, fast fashion, joe fresh, walmart

Clothes from Walmart: If you know how to sew, you’ll understand that it is impossible to pay a fair wage to someone to make a skirt – and cover costs of fabric, shippping and markup, and sell for a price of $16.

There are articles circulating in the media about a new initiative that big brands are joining, which protects workers like this. Then there is also the backlash against the brands who aren’t signing this agreement. Though I do think it is incredibly important for there to be some way of monitoring the conditions of overseas garment factories, I also think an agreement will take a great deal of time to create, and I’m not surprised that companies are weary of agreeing to terms created in just a few weeks.

bangladesh, working conditions, buy local, fast fashion, joe fresh, walmart

Over 1,000 people died in the factory collapse.

But there is a solution to this problem, action we can take right now, that will make a difference. It is simple: stop buying dirt cheap clothing. I am not suggesting we all exclusively buy luxury or local from here on (although that would be nice…), or we stop buying garments made in Bangladesh (people depend on the garment industry there to feed their families), but if we all take a stand and say “No, I don’t need a $12 pair of jeans, and yes, I can spend $30 on a t-shirt,” then we would be able to make a big difference.

Companies don’t have these practices in place because they want to exploit people, they do what they have to do to sell clothes. And if we go around demanding $4 t-shirts, then companies will find a way to provide them, at any expense.

bangladesh, working conditions, buy local, fast fashion, joe fresh, walmart

Clothes from Joe Fresh: a $5 tank top is surely not made under fair working conditions.

I know this is easier said than done, in fact, just the other day I bought my son two t-shirts from Old Navy – and it felt wrong. I am a lot more conscious about these things now, and unlike most of us, my son actually did need some new clothes (well, new to him, and I couldn’t find the t-shirts second hand.) As for the rest of us, I am pretty sure that we could go the next five years without buying any new fashion items, and we’d still have clothes on our back. But we do still want to buy clothes and invest in fashion, right? I am suggesting we do this with a bit more thought. Buy things that aren’t dirt cheap. Buy things that will last longer. Buy smart. Buy less. Buy local. Buy items that will work well in your wardrobe and that you’ll be able to wear a lot. Not everyone has the resources to trade up, but most of us do.

I need the fashion industry – it is my job and it pays my bills, but the fashion industry doesn’t need to be about exploitation. Let’s not depend on the brands to take action on our behalf, take matters into your own hands and start buying smarter. I can guarantee you that if we demand clothing that is better made, at a higher price point, companies will provide them.

Read the 5 Reasons Why I Want to be a Minimalist.

Factory images from here and here, clothing images from Joe Fresh and Walmart.

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  • dianasaur2

    Also buy more used! I got a beautiful Cacharel dress that I wore to my graduation from my local thrift shop – that’s definitely the $5 dress with a conscience! There’s so many good finds in second-hand stores.

  • Lisa Wong

    This is a smart, balanced perspective on a complicated problem. My price thresholds at Joe Fresh were usually higher than the “dirt cheap” items they offer, with the rationale that they have better quality items (like silk tops and dresses) at competitive prices. I haven’t stopped wearing the Joe Fresh items I already own, but after hearing about the factory collapse I did feel nauseated and check the tags on everything.

    Kudos to the brands putting together the agreement. However, I’m afraid even an agreement like that wouldn’t go very far in the face of corrupt government officials and business owners, and a political culture of letting people get away with sh*t.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Absolutely! Second hand clothing is an excellent option – 90% of my kid’s stuff is second hand.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    I also bought stuff from Joe Fresh that wasn’t dirt cheap, but still, a $40/$50 silk top is questionable – silk has gotten so much cheaper over the years, and I doubt it is because the worms are getting better at making it.
    And yes, I totally agree it is not just about us and the brands, it is also up to the manufacturers and countries of origin to protect the workers.

  • Lisa Wong

    The worms aren’t necessarily better at making it, but the scale of silk production today, combined with favourable international trade conditions, probably have a lot to do with the cheaper price of silk. Japan was the leading silk producer globally until artificial fibres (like nylon) and politics (like a US boycott during WWII, and the removal of protectionist measures for the Japanese silk industry in the 1970s) eroded their industry. China and India are currently the largest silk producers. But I imagine for many years China’s Communist regime probably impeded the country’s capacity to take over as a leading silk producer.

    That being said, I’m also sure the “Made in China” status of most of Joe Fresh’s silk items have a lot to do with the price.

  • Brian Lee

    Great post! Exercising one’s right to influence consumer demand is one of the most powerful ways an individual has to make a difference. There are now tools that can better connect consumers with the companies that make the products that they buy and provide information beyond price to help make purchase decisions (http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2013/05/14/new-app-lets-you-boycott-koch-brothers-monsanto-and-more-by-scanning-your-shopping-cart/). Hopefully these tools will include more household items such as clothes.

  • Skating Canuck

    With the Canadian government’s recent decision to pay migrant workers the same wages as Canadians a lot of issues have been raised about how food prices will rise, and possible benefits of a change of structure in govt food subsidies. I wonder how this might trickle into fashion eventually….