My $10 T-Shirt: A Conversation about Ethical Fashion

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

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Workers in a garment factory in Jiaxing, China, taken in 2008.

Credit:

Memn/Flickr

The death toll of the April 24 collapse of a garment factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, has passed 1,000 people, making it the worst industrial accident since the 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal. The Rana Plaza complex collapsed just one day after an engineer declared it unsafe.

Britain’s Primark and Canadian company Loblaw, have admitted that their clothing was manufactured at Rana Plaza and offered to compensate victims of the disaster.

It is a disconcerting thought for a shopper’s conscience. But figuring out what we as consumers can do to help workers in the garment industry is not an easy task.One question on my mind this week has been: Is it possible that the T-shirt I bought yesterday was made by one of the workers killed in that factory?

Bangladesh is the world’s second largest exporter of apparel after China. It is a part of their economy that has grown quickly, capitalizing on a low-wage model that appeals to Western retailers such as Wal-Mart and Primark.

In the last 20 years, ready-made garments have become a $19 billion industry that accounts for almost 80 percent of exports and employs some 4 million people, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

The Rana Plaza collapse was neither the first nor last deadly disaster in the Bangladesh. On Thursday, as the victims were still being pulled from the rubble, another garment factory in Dhaka caught fire killing eight people, including the building’s owner. Five months ago, a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory outside Dhaka killed 112 people.

How can consumers make responsible decisions about our clothing purchases when both the lives and livelihoods of garment factory workers are at stake?

Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, told The World that consumers should continue to buy clothes made in Bangladesh. “Boycott is not the solution. A boycott would be suicide for the country’s economy,” she said.

Economist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus suggests a minimum wage for international garment buyers (of $0.25 per hour) or a small surcharge for consumers. “The consumers have to say ‘we don’t want our products to be made by slave labor,’” Yunus told The Takeaway.

Join us Monday on Facebook for a day-long chat about how we might be able to shop more responsibly for our clothes. Click here to RSVP and post your comments and questions to the wall.

Clark University sociology professor Robert Ross and Liana Foxvog, director of organizing at the International Labor Rights Forum will be among those online to answer your questions.

10 a.m. EST: Taslima Akhter is a Bangladeshi photographer whose graphic but powerful image of victims of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse “The Final Embrace” was featured at TIME. She studied at the Pathshala South Asian Media Academy.

10:30 a.m. EST: Lucy Siegle is a journalist for the Observer and author of “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?”

11 a.m. EST: Robert Ross is a professor of sociology at Clark University and author of Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse.

“[Clothing companies] know darn well what’s going on with the sizing, with the stitching, with the buttonholes. They’re paying very close attention to that. The fact of the matter is, they are not insulated from the factory cultures of the places they’re operating in,” he told The World.

12 p.m. EST: Liana Foxvog is director of organizing at the International Labor Rights Forum, which is campaigning for corporate accountability and urging major brands such as H&M, Walmart and Gap to adopt legally binding measures that ensure safety in factories.

1 p.m. EST: Karen Li, a local organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops at Cornell University, is a leader in a national campaign to encourage Gap to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.

2 p.m. EST: Stephanie Luce is a professor of labor studies at the City University of New York (CUNY) where she researches globalization and labor standards. She is the author of “Fighting for a Living Wage.” (ILR Press, 2004).

3:15 p.m. EST: Mushfiq Mobarak is an associate professor of economics at the Yale School of Management. He researches the challenges to doing for-profit or non-profit business in developing countries.

5 p.m. EST: Salil Tripathi is the director of policy at the Institute for Human Rights and Business in London, where he recently wrote Another factory tragedy: How will Bangladesh and the world react?