Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Once again, garment workers in Bangladesh have died en masse while producing cheap clothing for Westerners. These incidents are so awful that awful doesn't begin to describe it. Those who know how the garment industry works need to help us sort out what could be done to prevent such things from happening. The answer may or may not have anything to do with Western consumers voting with their dollars, euros, etc. If we can do something, we should. It's just not clear what. We can expect, though, another round of commentators announcing that "we" - ordinary consumers - need to stop demanding cheap clothes, as if it were that simple. At the risk of repeating myself, some things to keep in mind:

-We don't have any reason to believe paying $50 (say) or more for a t-shirt means the extra goes to workers, and not just to materials/brand/store rent/executives. Do we have reason to think J.Crew is better than H&M?

-We don't have any objective sense of what a t-shirt should cost. Our scale for this is based on what they do cost. So our sense that $15 (say) is "normal" comes from some being cheaper, some much more expensive. Maybe it turns out that $15 is half of what an ethically-produced t-shirt would need to cost, but we're not spending $15 on a t-shirt in order to be stingy. We just don't know that $15 is too cheap for a t-shirt, if indeed it is.*

-While there are some consumers who buy cheap clothes because it satisfies their lust for the newest trends, this is not what's motivating most shoppers. Most of us just notice that our clothing has worn out - which it has, either because it was poorly-made or because its cost relative to our budget permitted us to treat it carelessly - and buy new clothing. Yes, we (almost) all want to look of our era, but exceedingly few of us can even tell FW2012 from SS2013. I read fashion blogs on occasion... and I'd have no idea.

-If consumers aren't spending $30 (say) on ethical t-shirts, this isn't because of Zara-obsession, or because consumers as individuals demand to pay $15 and not a penny more, and if that kills hundreds of factory workers, so be it. It's because it's a research project to figure out which t-shirts are ethical. The sort of consumers who do care about this will know to be wary of greenwashing, and so will not blindly pay more for brands that give the impression of being the kinder choice.

*This comes up as well re: the horse meat scandal, that consumers ought to have known that very cheap "beef" was something else. When... no. How on earth would ordinary consumers know where the cheapness threshold is between low-quality cuts of low-quality cow-meat and that which wasn't cow to begin with?


If the comments here and here are any indication, indeed, "our" demand for cheap cheap cheap is responsible. And there's an aspect of this that's just complete snobbery - consumers who either want an excuse to shop high-end or, worse, who just can't wait to announce that low-income shoppers are not merely crass but bad people. There's sometimes a certain amount of (sometimes internalized) misogyny - the kind of shopping generally preferred by women (as vs. gadgets, guns) is inherently more frivolous. But here, snobbery seems the order of the day. (There's apparently this thing called, like, the British class system?)

The Guardian commenters sure do like that Primark, which I'm assuming is a cheap store over there akin to Old Navy, is implicated here, and for reasons with little to do with labor conditions: Writes one: "I hate Primark. It's a brawling zoo. On a shopping trip to London (I live abroad) I went to Primark on an errand for a friend. Never again. Heaving, sweaty, pushy. It was like a bad TV reality show, with hundreds of people shoving each other out of the way, grasping for the prize." Another: "Truly shocking, tragic news. I can`t bring myself to shop at Primark because of their absurdly low prices, but I know that most other high street retailers are not much (or at all) better." But... those places have nicer stuff, so? Another: "I doubt most of the people that shop at Primark and Poundland are that interested in ethics. We live in a selfish world."

Another, winning the missing-the-point award: "Primarks clothes always seem to shrink or fall apart after a few washes, so they're not cheaper in the long run. Plus their jeans never fit properly." And finally, the nail, the head: "I refuse to shop at Primark well for one its full of poor people but also their ethics are incongruous with the standards i set for myself."

And, eh. There's no fundamental human right to a varied wardrobe, and if whichever necessary behind-the-scenes reforms are enacted and that means clothing costs more, well, that will be harder on those with stricter budgets. But given our current situation, those who spend more per item don't hold any particular moral high ground.


So the answer isn't condemning consumer stinginess. Nor, however, is it reacting to catastrophes of this scale as if they're no big deal. Even if the underlying argument there is sound, which, not convinced, but gosh, kind of a lot of people died there. It doesn't take that many words to acknowledge that.


Anonymous said...

The responsibility for the fire and working conditions is that of the authorities in Bangladesh and has nothing to do with those who purchase the clothes.

Moebius Stripper said...

I tweeted this earlier, but it seems that in *this particular case*, determining how much we should be pay for our clothes, or whether corporations operating overseas should be held to higher standards, is...I hate to say "beside the point", but these aren't issues that absolutely had to have been addressed properly in order to avoid this tragedy. This factory violated building codes; it was inspected, determined to be unsafe, and police ordered it evacuated the day before the collapse. If either the construction codes or the police order had been obeyed, those 238 workers would be alive today, full stop.

It seems that the laws required to prevent this tragedy existed. Hopefully, at the very least, the people who broke them will be held accountable. (I suspect that no Westerner involved in this will suffer any consequence greater than having to tell the media how unfortunate this all was. Maybe they'll have to deal with lower profits for the next few months before the whole thing is (mostly) forgotten.)

Phoebe said...


I suppose one could argue that "the West" is why these workers were ordered to report to a factory on the cusp of collapse. But you're right - it's going to be tough to pin this on the corporations themselves.

I'm not sure that in *any* such cases, "we" pay too little for our t-shirts is the answer. Until we know that whatever extra we might pay for t-shirts would go to anything related to improving labor conditions, suggestions that "we" pay more are basically a way of pretending that buying nicer stuff is this great act of altruism.

Moebius Stripper said...

suggestions that "we" pay more are basically a way of pretending that buying nicer stuff is this great act of altruism.

For sure, but I still find it amazing just how thinly veiled that pretense is (as those Guardian comments show).

Re the Yglesias piece: I agree with his headline, but, per my earlier comment, it doesn't apply completely here. Also, I think that he, ironically, makes the same mistake that his left-wing detractors do. The latter, fueled by (understandable) empathy, don't bother doing the math when calling for better safety standards and higher wages (such changes, taken too far, have the potential to increase unemployment and poverty, leading to more deaths and suffering, albeit of a less dramatic form). Yglesias, on the other hand, doesn't seem to feel the need to mention that some of the people involved in producing cheap clothes in Bangladesh are making enormous sums of money, and maybe, just maybe, some of that can and should be allocated toward improving safety. The economics of the situation are complicated, but neither Yglesias nor his left-wing critics seem to have bothered to crunch any numbers (or even acknowledge the need to do so) before coming to their conclusions.

Phoebe said...

Yes, the Guardian comments are amazingly thinly veiled in that respect. Something to do with how Brits discuss class?

There's going to be an awkwardness in responding to something like this, if it's presented as sweatshops vs. what would be acceptable in the West (not that there aren't sweatshops in the West). Obviously, if this is presented as, why don't garment workers in Bangladesh make at least a U.S. minimum wage, or should we maybe encourage these workers to eat more kale, the counterargument doesn't even need to come from a libertarian/conservative. And while it may seem cold and uncaring to say that anyone ever needs an unpleasant-sounding job, well, some people do. (I've had this argument re: a food co-op near where I used to live, that expressed its progressiveness by having the lawyers and such who frequented it work as volunteer cashiers, etc. I pointed out that this took away cashier jobs, I was told in effect that those are not jobs anyone would actually, like, want. Argh!)

But if the question is, is there a right to go to your sewing job and not die en masse of workplace-related injury, well, that's not something fancy-schmancy and Western, but universal. As you note, there are regulations meant to prevent this sort of thing from happening. Past a certain threshold, garment-work in Bangladesh starts to seem not a heck of a lot better than the alternatives in Bangladesh, seeing as being crushed to death - or almost to death and thus unable to work - is quite horrible. And it could be that the resource shifting needed to prevent these things would be quite minimal. I do freely admit that I have no idea of the precise number-crunching behind any of this.

Britta said...

WIth globalization and cheap clothing, there are two separate issues: the first is that the cost of living in other countries means that it is cheaper to manufacture stuff there, even paying the workers the local equivalent of what a unionized factory worker would make. The second is that third world countries generally are filled with desperate people and governments willing to turn a blind eye to abuse and exploitation, so companies don't have to even bother with the first.

The argument that companies *aren't* at fault is kind of BS. First, companies contract to factories, and work generally goes to the lowest bidder. There's economic pressure for the factory to avoid expensive maintenance and safety repairs, as it makes them less competitive. Companies could demand a certain level of safety or conditions for the workers, and you bet that factory owners would comply. Secondly, if you contract labor out, you still have a responsibility to monitor the contractor, and this means more than just one planned tour.

On some level, the choice isn't just between a $5 t-shirt made by Bangledeshi children and a $50 made by unionized American workers, but also between a $5 t-shirt made by Bangledeshi children getting paid below minimum wage and a $10-15 t-shirt made by Bangledeshi workers getting paid a living wage.

The economics of the situation are complicated, but neither Yglesias nor his left-wing critics seem to have bothered to crunch any numbers (or even acknowledge the need to do so) before coming to their conclusions.

Not all left-wingers are utilitarians. There's also something to be said for saving the lives of people we know are being killed in the here and now by capitalist exploitation, vs. putting up with their deaths to prevent hypothetical future deaths we have only predicted, especially when that very comfortably supports the status quo.

Britta said...

oh- but I do agree there are more things that could be done within the existing system to make it better than it is, like making sure that more of the factory profits go workers.

Moebius Stripper said...

There's also something to be said for saving the lives of people we know are being killed in the here and now by capitalist exploitation, vs. putting up with their deaths to prevent hypothetical future deaths we have only predicted

But that's precisely the problem - that the hypotheticals also apply to the people alive in the here and now. *Most of the time*, skimping on safety measures doesn't lead to hundreds of workers dying. Case by case, implementing this safety measure or that one isn't guaranteed to save lives, but it *is* guaranteed to cost money. There's no avoiding having to make decisions about what improvements in safety - which translate only into potential for lives saved - are worth additional expenses. But, as you say, this is happening in the context of capitalist exploitation, and skimping on safety measures is considerably less defensible when (at least some of) the resources needed to implement them are being diverted into a CEO's pocket.

Also, the hypothetical future deaths we could only have predicted are informed by the past; garment factories, for all their horrors, are often better than what replaced them.

But again, in this case...existing laws that, if followed, would have *definitely* saved over 200 lives, were broken. Whatever reforms would help sweatshop workers in general, these particular sweatshop workers could, should, easily have been saved without any of them.

Phoebe said...


The problem - not with your comment, but with the situation - is that if the answer is $10-$15 t-shirts, it's not the t-shirts in that price range currently in stores. Switching from the absolute cheapest to the slightly less cheap provides no obvious benefit to labor.