Weighing the Cost: Shoppers grapple with the aftermath of Bangladesh

The deadly factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed an estimated 1,129 workers has left consumers shaken. Over a month after the tragedy, how are North American shoppers reacting to the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ label?

Garments worker in Bangladesh

Garments worker in Bangladesh

Clarissa Fidler, 25, loves J.Crew and Gap. A graduate student at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, she loves the brands for their trendy interpretation of All-American style. But the discovery that both companies produce garments in factories in Bangladesh has left her struggling with a different kind of buyer’s remorse.

“Sometimes as much as I’d like to buy local or not buy that H&M T-shirt, I’m more focused on my daily life, my financial and living situation,” said Fidler. “Those take over when I make my decision and I’m not necessarily proud of that but that’s the reality for me.”

The sentiment resonates across borders, too. Tanya Tomasella, 28, is a secondary school teacher from Vaughn, Ontario, who said that she favors stores such as Banana Republic and Tommy Hilfiger – brands also known to produce garments in Bangladesh.

“It hits home when you learn that companies are getting their clothes made in these areas,” said Tomasella. “You feel like you’re partially responsible and you feel guilty.”

With a booming ready-made garment manufacturing industry that’s second only to China, Bangladesh has established itself as a major player in the world of apparel exports. According to international management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the garment industry in Bangladesh could be worth as much as $36 billion by 2020. The allure of cheap labor has wooed both high street and high-end brands from across the globe. However, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex on April 24, which killed an estimated 1,129 workers, has once again exposed an industry fraught with government corruption, corporate neglect and violations of  labor laws and safety standards.

As rescuers searched for victims, amidst the rubble were dust-covered garments that bore household labels like the Canadian Joe Fresh and American budget brand, Dress Barn. Companies immediately held press conferences assuring the public that victims will be compensated and safety standards will be met. Loblaw Cos. Ltd., which owns Joe Fresh, issued this April 29 statement: “Our priorities are helping the victims and their families, and driving change to help prevent similar incidents in the future.” Details, however, were not available. In an attempt to assuage shareholders and consumers, retailers such as Zara, H&M, and Calvin Klein have signed a legally binding safety accord to improve factory conditions. However, Gap and Walmart, which has a strong presence in Canada, declined to sign the agreement.

Even weeks after the tragedy, many workers were still unaccounted for. And grieving relatives would wait outside the remains of Rana Plaza, holding pictures of loved ones, mostly women. The reports have sent a ripple of anger, guilt and disgust among consumers.

“It’s disappointing because we live in the 21st century and these companies make so much money,” said Fidler. “You would think that by now we’d have better conditions for factory workers.”

Non-profit organizations around the world such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and Fair Labor Association have long been advocating for improving the lives of millions of factory workers in the apparel manufacturing industry.

“It also highlights [our role] as consumers,” said Ernest Coverson, field organizer for Amnesty International in Chicago. “Hopefully it sparks something in people to become a more conscious consumer and to really think of what’s going into what we’re purchasing.”

While he says that it’s unlikely that those responsible for the collapse will be taken to international criminal court, he blames “the individual greed of people when it comes to attacking the bottom line.”

“[These workers] are risking their lives,” said Coverson. “Around the world there are different standards of living and it’s important to work and communicate with those countries to get people to understand that there should be one standard around the world when it comes to workers’ rights.”

Some consumers have responded by boycotting garments made in Bangladesh. But Nashrah Noor, 24, a California-based designer at architecture firm, Thornton Tomasetti, sees things differently. Noor is originally from Chittagong, Bangladesh, where her uncle owns a garment-manufacturing factory. She stated that simply refusing to buy garments made in Bangladesh could do more harm than good.

“I have friends who refuse to shop at Kohl’s because the company uses cheap labor and they don’t want to promote it,” said Noor. “But I’ve also seen how it has improved life for these workers back home – if they weren’t working at sweatshops, they’d be working as maids in different households.”

Noor stated that incidents like the Rana Plaza collapse, although tragic, completely overshadow the positive impact of the industry on its workers: many are able to single-handedly provide for their families and afford to educate themselves and their children.

“Especially the improvement of women that this industry has created in Bangladesh, I think that’s very important to look at,” she said. “Consumers should still buy products from developing countries because by doing so they’re helping to improve [their economy].”

Indeed, the tragedy hasn’t shown any signs of hurting companies’ bottom line. According to Marina Strauss, the retailing reporter for Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, bargain buys are simply too tempting for consumers to resist.

“The recovery from the recession has been very slow, very shaky and has made consumers very inconsistent and fragile,” said Strauss. “We have a fragile consumer that’s looking for cheap clothing – cheap anything – and the combination of that means that demand for lines like Joe Fresh, as far as I can see, hasn’t really diminished significantly.”

Since last year’s November 24 factory fire, which killed at least 117 workers, Strauss, has closely followed Bangladesh’s garment manufacturing industry and the business of “cheap chic.” While the tragedies have highlighted hazardous working conditions in Bangladeshi factories, the incident has also created more awareness for locally produced garments in North America.

“It focuses people a little more on brands made in Canada,” said Strauss. “I don’t think it’s a tipping point but it’s a small percentage.”

One such brand that prides itself as one of the remaining brands still manufactured in Canada is Canada Goose, a line of high-end parkas and cold weather accessories. The parkas, which sell for an average of U.S. $800, are also available in the United States at luxury boutiques and designer retailers such as Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s. The company’s ability to carve out a niche even among budget-conscious shoppers could be due in part to its marketing approach: creating a strong sense of transparency.

Its streamlined website clearly states where each of its components are sourced: from zippers to the humanely plucked down and feathers used to line the parkas. Pictures show workers in large, well-lit factories and the company even volunteers an interesting fact: until they can find a Canadian manufacturer, their gloves are being produced in China.

Strauss stated that although it’s a slow movement, today’s consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the products that they’re buying. By creating a sense of transparency, shoppers have the knowledge to decide which companies they’re willing to support.

“Are we going to see more of this?” asked Strauss. “I think we will. I think people want to know more. People become more curious – even I’m watching labels.”

Tomasella agreed. “Now, in the age of the Internet companies should clearly display where their products are being made,” she said. “I don’t think people would mind paying $300 for something even if it was being made in Bangladesh if they knew how it was being made.”

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