Don Pittis: An ethical shopping trip means more than comparing price tags

The factory disaster in Bangladesh forces us to realize that our search for cheap and cheerful fashions, or something as mundane as socks and t-shirts, is directly connected to the misery of others, Don Pittis writes.
Locals watch the rescue operation at the collapsed garment building in Bangladesh. The building housed factories that made low-cost garments for Western brands such as Joe Fresh. (Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

Amidst the anguish of the families in Bangladesh as they pull dead and injured out of a collapsed factory building, it seems trite to talk about the price of underwear.

But this is the place where the horrible reality of developing country manufacturing bumps up against the commonplace of our daily lives. Suddenly we are forced to realize that our search for cheap and cheerful fashions, or something as mundane as socks and t-shirts, is directly connected to the misery of others.

As someone said to me today, "it's obvious" bargain prices for clothing here in the first world inevitably lead to the kind of conditions that kill people in the developing world.

If that is true, the answer is also obvious. Stop buying cheap clothing and only buy relatively expensive stuff where people in poor countries are not exploited.

I was suspicious of this analysis, so I went on a research trip to the Hudson's Bay store at Toronto's Yonge and Queen.

The reason I focus on underwear is because there is a direct personal connection. It just so happens that shortly before the disaster in Bangladesh, I'd gone out and bought five pairs of inexpensive Joe Fresh underwear. They cost $6 a pair.

That made me think: had I unwittingly done harm to someone in a distant factory through my purchase?

So to do my research I went to the underwear section of the Bay.

The first ones I looked at were Calvin Kleins, two pairs for $30, or $15 a piece. They were made in Cambodia, the 186th richest country on earth out of the 229 recognized by the CIA Factbook. People in Cambodia make about $2,300 a year. They are only marginally richer than the people in Bangladesh.

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Tommy Hilfigers,at $17.50 a pair, were made in Indonesia, 157th richest on the list, where people earn about $5,000 a year.

The most expensive ones I saw were branded Diesel at $40 a pair. They were made in India, 166th on the list, average income per person of $3,900 — less than Indonesia, but about twice the per capita income of Bangladesh. 

Polo Ralph Lauren (Indonesia and China), Hugo Boss (Egypt), Jockey (Costa Rica), Joe Boxer (with Canadian flags; made in Thailand), were all manufactured in poor countries.

Most importantly, there was no clear relationship between price and the poverty of the country where they were made.

Nor was there any obvious correlation in quality. 

The strange exception in my little informal survey was the section I visited last.

Stanfield's underwear were the cheapest of them all at $30 for a pack of three, or 10 bucks each. Their label said they were made in Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada, which has an average income $41,500 per person, 27th richest on the planet.

Price only part of equation

What my research shows is that contrary to the "obvious" expectation of my friend mentioned above, buying expensive clothing is no guarantee that clothes have been made in a country where workers are better paid.

In the supply chain for modern goods, the actual price of manufacturing is often a tiny portion of the final price.

Brand advertising, buying a good placement of goods in the store, fancy packaging, design, payments to executives and shareholders — it all adds up to many times the amount paid to developing country labourers. 

In the case of underwear at least, the answer might be to buy Canadian. Following the most intensive price-quality survey I have ever done on underwear, I am tempted to do just that.

No simple answer

Unfortunately, the answers are really not so easy, especially when you move out of underwear into other kinds of clothing.

It is true that companies that manufacture in Bangladesh are exploiting a poor country. Bangladesh ranks at 192 on the CIA list, with a population of more that 160 million and an average income of $2,000 a year. With an average income so low, millions struggle on far less. People are destitute, their land being swept away by rising sea levels. They need work.

As my research showed, almost all manufacturers exploit low wages more or less. When we buy their brands, we are also exploiters.

But put in another way, Bangladesh is winning too. By putting their poor people to work they are taking jobs from Canada and Costa Rica and China. They are feeding their families. And not all Bangladesh factories are death traps. 

That is why refusing to buy from Bangladesh is no solution. 

The reason factory buildings rarely collapse in Truro, N.S., is that Canadians have become rich enough and democratic enough to force our governments to regulate and inspect. We have developed courts that are hard to bribe, and the courts make builders and factory owners more responsible for their actions. 

Only a generation ago South Korea and Taiwan were the countries being exploited. Now they are rich as Europeans.

Bangladesh has yet to go through that process, and we can't afford to wait.

When bad things happen in the factories that make our goods, it is good to name names and point fingers. Joe Fresh goods, sold in Loblaws stores, were made in that factory. But Joe Fresh is not alone.

We don't want people killed making our clothes. And the only pressure we can bring to bear as ethical consumers is through the retailers who bring us those goods.