Follow up – What’s in a label? Snowsuits, globalization, and my slight inferiority complex

I’d like to think that I am a moral human-being. I know that sounds simple-minded and I’m very very very far from perfect, but I try at least to be an ethical consumer. I recycle, I support local businesses and buy cage-free eggs. So it is with mixed feelings that I write this follow-up post regarding the snow pants I bought for our northern California trip at the end of last year.

Here is one photo J took from our trip:

Just one month before he shot this, this other photo was published on the Reuters site:

Garment Fire What is the connection between these drastically different photos you ask? In the top photo you have a snowboarder quietly enjoying the serene atmosphere of the mountain, and below you have crowds of angry women screaming. These women are protesting the dangerous and unfair conditions inside many Bangladesh garment factories — which produce snow pants like the ones worn by the person pictured above. And now, with China stepping down (due to higher-pay demands by Chinese workers) as the world’s leader in garment manufacturing, many big businesses are going to Bangladesh, where workers are the least paid in the world.

Let me backtrack . . . After three days of snowboarding in approximately 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the mountains of Lake Tahoe, I can now confidently say that regardless of previous doubts, Bangladeshi hands make some kick-ass snow pants. As a novice snowboarder, I fell on my paacha plenty of times but the pants created a solid barrier against the cold snow and I stayed warm and dry the entire time. The ridiculously cheap $25 Climate Control snow pants I bought from Modell’s served me so well that I didn’t even need to take out the $180 North Face ones from my suitcase.

But I feel sick to my stomach as I write this because, folks, $180 is the amount of money the seamstress in Bangladesh who sewed those pants makes in about six months. It is money that she uses for her bare necessities and sends back to her family in the even more rural and poor parts outside of Dhaka. And I used a part of my disposable income to buy one pair of snow pants with that same amount of money. So you’ll have to excuse me that instead of being content with the bargain I scored, I am experiencing a lump in my throat and major ABCD guilt. It is a guilt that comes from seeing people from your country of origin struggle, and later experiencing first-world comforts at their expense.

I read about the 111 garment workers (mostly women) who died in the fire at the Tazreen factory in November and was horrified to read about their unsafe conditions and what their families had to experience.

This part in the New York Times article really spoke to me:

In the end, analysts said, the conflagration was a tragic byproduct of an industry in which global brands and retailers, encouraged by hundreds of millions of consumers around the world, are still primarily motivated by the bottom line. “We as consumers like to be able to buy ever-greater quantities of ever-cheaper goods, every year,” said Richard M. Locke, deputy dean of the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. “Somebody is bearing the cost of it, and we don’t want to know about it. The people bearing the cost were in this fire.”

I have to disagree with you Mr. Locke, I do want to know about it. If cheaper priced clothing for me means paying such a huge human price, then I want no part of it. I don’t mind paying the extra money, but I need and want to know that the money is going to the workers at these factories and not just fattening the wallets of some exec at Walmart, Sears, Gap or H&M. I know that worker abuse happens all over the world, but with this story I felt a connection because the factory was just a few miles from where J and I went with my family last winter in our trip to Bangladesh.

Nowadays, Western consumers are becoming more and more aware of aligning their money with their ethics, a la local tomatoes, free-range chicken, grass-fed beef, etc. It is time that we become aware of where our clothing comes from and how the workers are treated. Just like the food industry has labels for free-range, local and organic products maybe the apparel industry can do the same. Some sort of seal of approval that lets the consumer know that the higher price they are paying on an outfit is going towards better safety standards and wages for the person at the bottom of the chain who stitches a hood on a jacket in 90 seconds. Interestingly enough, J did a quick Google search for “cruelty-free clothing” and it brought up results relating to animals and not to humans. He thinks this is a new concept for most people.

Earlier tonight I returned my unworn snow pants to the store and got my poisha back. I plan on putting that money towards something good . . maybe I’ll  donate it to some international labor rights organization. If you know of any such organizations, please include the name of the organization in a comment below. 

Related sources:

Infographic of Garment Industry in Bangladesh
New York Times: Bangladesh Fire Exposes Safety Gap in Supply Chain
Financial Times: The Lesson of the Bangladesh Fire is a Wake Up Call on Prices
Process Flow Chart of Garments
Clean Clothes Campaign
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