Social Issues
Fast Fashion, Western Retailers & The Bangladesh Building Collapse
April 25, 2013
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The collapse of that garment building in Bangladesh has reignited the debate about the role and responsibility of western businesses and consumers.

Several factories inside made clothes for western companies, including Joe Fresh - a Canadian company owned by Loblaw Companies Ltd.

Many retailers in the west have their clothes made in factories just like these ones, largely because of cheap labour costs and quick turn-around time.

In Bangladesh, for example, the minimum wage - which was doubled in 2010 - is $38 a month.

That cheap labour has attracted Western retailers and led to huge growth in Bangladesh's garment industry, which is now said to be worth $20 billion-a-year, with about 4,000 factories that make and export clothing.

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And of course, many of us buy those clothes: millions of shirts, pants, sweaters, coats and more every year.

Some of the companies in the building say their customers include major brands, including the world's biggest retailer, Wal-Mart - which said it is investigating.

For its part, Joe Fresh issued a statement saying that "a small number" of Joe Fresh-branded products were made at the building.

"We will be working with our vendor to understand how we may be able to assist them during this time," said the statement, which was attributed to vice-president of public relations Julija Hunter.

Loblaw officials issued a statement expressing condolences and said the company has vendor standards ensuring "compliance with applicable health and safety regulations. We audit against these standards on a regular basis."

Still, there are calls for Western retailers to do more.

"If they actually put their money to use, pushing suppliers and pushing the government to improve safety conditions, I think we'd see a big change overnight," said Kevin Thomas of the Maquila Solidarity Network, a workers rights group.

Others say consumers must also acknowledge their role.

"Our desire for this type of inexpensive clothing, our choices of buying them is part of why it's produced there," said Keith Head of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business.

"I think that's mainly for the good of Bangladeshis but it could be done better."

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A rescuer searches for survivors in the collapsed building

Scott Nova, the executive director of Worker Rights Consortium, told Bloomberg Businessweek "It's an expectation retailers have created."

"Consumers weren't demanding that 20 years ago. Retailers need to step back from this absurd approach of changing styles every 15 minutes if factories are going to be minimally safe."

Matt Galloway, the host of CBC Radio's 'Metro Morning' in Toronto, spoke with Nova today in a segment called 'Failed Responsibility'.

We collected some pieces about the clothing industry and the relationship between Western retailers and countries such as Bangladesh.

In that same report from Bloomberg, the authors write...

"At issue is the industry's growing dependence on a business model that encourages some fashion chains to push for the lowest prices from subcontracted factories... To keep their contracts, factories may put concerns about production schedules before those of worker rights or safety."

They go on to write, "H&M, among the largest buyers of ready-made garments in Bangladesh, has posted gross margins higher than 50 per cent for the past 10 years. Rivals including Gap and Urban Outfitters never exceeded the low 40s during that time.

That's why much of the industry, including some U.S. chains, boarded the fast-fashion express for a lot of their clothes."

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In a piece for the Toronto Star, Kevin Thomas (who's quoted above) asked this question after a factory fire in Bangladesh last fall...

"Given that the absence of basic safety practices made this tragedy entirely predictable and preventable, why did major North American brands whose products were made in the factory do nothing to prevent it?"

He adds, "While factory owners are directly responsible for ensuring safety standards are met, and governments are responsible for enforcing strong safety regulations, surely every clothing brand also wants to ensure that its own products aren't being made in death traps?"

Here are a few other worthwhile reads:

The Wall Street Journal: Do We Need To Kick The Fast-Fashion Habit?

Foreign Policy In Focus: Rethinking Sweatshop Economics

The Globe & Mail: The Real Cost Of Our Fast Fashion Consumption Culture

Here's a piece from 2006 by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times entitled 'In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop'.

In it, he argues that many people in developing countries see sweatshops as opportunities. Kristof writes...

"Sure, sweatshop work is tedious, grueling and sometimes dangerous. But over all, sewing clothes is considerably less dangerous or arduous - or sweaty - than most alternatives in poor countries.

Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops. But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program."

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There's also this 1997 op-ed from Paul Krugman, a professor of economics at MIT, entitled 'In Praise of Cheap Labor'.

Krugman writes, "In a substantial number of industries, low wages allowed developing countries to break into world markets. And so countries that had previously made a living selling jute or coffee started producing shirts and sneakers instead."

He goes on to say, "The only reason developing countries have been able to compete with those industries is their ability to offer employers cheap labor. Deny them that ability, and you might well deny them the prospect of continuing industrial growth, even reverse the growth that has been achieved."

The building in Bangladesh was owned and managed locally. An engineering official said the owner was allowed to put up a five-storey building but added three more stories illegally.

On Tuesday, officials discovered deep cracks in the building and police ordered it to be cleared out.

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But garment workers say their bosses ignored the order and kept more than 2,000 people working - forcing them to go in, claiming everything was fine.

About an hour later, the building collapsed.

"After we got the crack reports, we asked them to suspend work until further examination, but they did not pay heed," said Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Bangladesh's Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir told reporters the building had violated construction codes and that "the culprits would be punished." Police were also looking for the owners of the garment factories.

As of this writing, at least 238 people are confirmed dead. But today rescuers said they found 40 people alive, trapped in one room on the fourth floor of the building.

In all, police say 2,000 people had been rescued.

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Rescuers pull a survivor from the collapsed building

This disaster happened five months after a fire killed 112 people at another factory that made clothes for the likes of Disney, Wal-Mart and Sears.

Since 2005, more than 700 garment workers have died in Bangladesh, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy group based in Washington.

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