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Thursday
Apr172014

Where Can I Shop for Clothing? Understanding Bangladesh, Safety and Ethical Sourcing

A lot of people were hit hard by the images of the Rana Plaza factory that collapsed in Bangladesh last year and the news of the factory fires that came before that. As Western consumers of many of the goods that are produced in that factory, the deaths, the injuries, the inhumane working conditions make us feel guilty, devastated and confused. Where can we buy clothing for our families without hurting people? How do we know that the companies that we are buying from are treating workers fairly and ensuring they have safe working conditions?

Image by rijans on wikimedia commons.

Boycotting "Made in Bangladesh" Will Do More Harm Than Good

Young woman at a job training program in Bangladesh (photo: Annie @ PhD in Parenting)After the fires and the building collapse, the initial response of many Westerners is to boycott "Made in Bangladesh" clothing, to punish the companies that source clothing there, and to seek out "Made in Canada" or "Made in USA" labels instead. There is nothing wrong with shopping locally. It has a lot of benefits, of course. But it also has its limitations (often less variety and greater cost) and ultimately doesn't do anything to help the plight of people working in poor conditions in Bangladesh.

If you boycott companies that produce goods in Bangladesh, you don't create better working conditions in Bangladesh, you put people out of a job. Instead of a dangerous job and uncertain future they have no job and no future.

Stephanie Nolen from the Globe and Mail wrote a detailed and excellent article with her thoughts on the issue and examples of the types of factories she saw while she was in Bangladesh -- I highly recommend reading it. You can also read my post from last year explaining why boycotting "Made in Bangladesh" will do more harm than good.

Not All Brands Are Equal - Who Are the Good Guys and the Bad Guys?

After the Rana Plaza factory collapse the human suffering was so great and the consumer outrage so strong that brands had to take notice. Most of them realized that they had to do something, but there was broad disagreement about what should be done, resulting in companies mostly falling into one of two camps: The signatories of the legally-binding, worker supported, Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the members of the non-binding, arms-length, no accountability Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety led by Walmart and Gap Inc. What is the difference between these two agreements?

Adapted from International Labor Rights forum

I think that table makes it fairly clear that the companies that have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh are committed to taking the steps necessary to ensure worker safety, while the companies that are members of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety are basically conducting a public relations exercise and hoping to convince consumers that they are doing something without actually making a commitment. The Accord has the potential to prevent future deaths and injuries, while the Alliance is business as usual and more tragedies are to be expected in those factories.

Which companies are on which list?

The lists are fluid as companies continue to sign on to one agreement or the other (which is one reason that I have delayed in writing this post, because it could be out of date as soon as it is posted). To get current lists of companies, go to:

It is important to remember that sometimes one company owns many brands. As an example, Gap owns Old Navy and Banana Republic. Carter's owns Osh Kosh B'gosh. VF, which I had never heard of, owns dozens of brands (including Lee, Wrangler, the North Face, JanSport, Nautica, Timberland and more). I've put together some quick reference graphics to help you identify which brands to avoid (signatories of the Walmart/Gap agreement) and which ones to support (signatories of the binding Accord). However, this is not a complete list of the brands and it is worth doing your research if you are unsure. Most of the members of the Walmart/Gap agreement are North American companies and I've tried to include as many of those as possible. In the case of the Accord, many of them are international brands that are not available in North America (the main area of my readership) and rather than trying to include all of them in the graphic, I've focused on the brands that I know are available in North America (but you can access the full list via the link).

 

There is one company that is a member of the Accord that I didn't include on the graphic. That is the United Colors of Benetton. Benetton signed the Accord in May 2013 under pressure, but Benetton has not disclosed all of its suppliers to the Accord and has not paid compensation to the Rana Plaza victims. It will be interesting to see if Benetton steps up or if any action is taken to remove Benetton from the Accord if they don't. Also, to give a sense of the movement on the issue, as of the writing of this post Fruit of the Loom was listed as being part of both agreements, likely because it signed the Walmart agreement earlier and then later decided to be part of the Accord (which it signed in December 2013).

 

What about brands that aren't on either list?

I've had friends say "What about Ann Taylor? I love their clothing, but I don't want to shop there if they are hurting people." Personally, I've always loved Roots products, even when they moved some of their production overseas. But when a company isn't on either list, it can be hard to figure out if they are doing things right or doing things wrong. Not having signed the Accord could mean that the company doesn't source products in Bangladesh and therefore has no need to sign it or it could mean that the company isn't willing to make a commitment. In the case of Roots, I did some digging and found a Toronto Star article where they (and other companies) answered some questions about how their products are sourced and they did not include Bangladesh on the list of countries that they source from. In the case of Ann Taylor, information on their website indicates that they are working on various projects in collaboration with quality organizations like the International Labor Organization and are funding projects in factories in Bangladesh to support women's health. Those are positive stories, but I wanted to get some objective information as well and couldn't find any. I do wonder why Ann Inc. wouldn't have signed onto the Accord and if I bought a lot of clothing from them, this is probably something that I would write to the company about. Patagonia is an example of a company that is well known for sustainable sourcing of clothing and they do source from a factory in Bangladesh, but are not part of either agreement. Given their track record overall, I would tend to support Patagonia despite them not being signatories of the Accord until I see some direct reason not to (i.e. a problem at one of their factories).

Does this mean that you can never shop at Target, Costco, Kohl's, Macy's or The Bay?

One of the interesting things that jumps out when looking at these two lists is that there are a lot of brands on the "good" list that are distributed via stores on the "bad" list. I know that I've bought Calvin Klein clothing at both The Bay and Costco, for example. Whether you avoid good brands in stores that have signed the toothless agreement is a personal decision. On the one hand, you should feel comfortable that those clothes were not made under unsafe conditions or at least that the supplier is committed to making the conditions as safe as possible. But on the other hand, do you want to contribute financially to a company that has said it doesn't really care about making a real commitment? It is a hard choice, especially if you are on a limited income living in an area with limited choice.

Personally, the decision that I've made is that I'll avoid buying the Kirkland brand clothing (Costco's in-house brand) at the Costco stores, but I'd still buy Calvin Klein clothing there or support other things they are doing right (e.g. helping innovative organic products reach a wider market, selling a large variety of local Quebec products, selling recycled and biodegradable products in bulk that we have trouble getting elsewhere, etc.). I'm not going to support their production of clothing in potentially unsafe environments, but I will try to encourage them in the things they are doing right by supporting those products.

With some other stores, the decision is more clean cut. I was already a Walmart avoider before the Bangladesh factory fires and collapse and now I simply do not go into their stores unless I have no other option (there have been times when they were the only store that had winter boots left in February, unfortunately). When it comes to stores that only sell clothing that is potentially made in unsafe conditions (e.g. Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic), there is absolutely no reason for me to purchase from them anymore. I used to buy a lot of clothing from those brands and I went from a big supporter to a boycotter almost overnight when I heard that Gap would not support safe working environments in Bangladesh. 

What About Victim Compensation?

I think that a lot of companies were caught off guard by the devastating tragedies in Bangladesh in the past few years. I don't think that is a good excuse for letting it happen and I don't think that consumers should accept willful ignorance as a get out of jail free card. However, I am choosing to look primarily at what companies are doing to change and to move forward. That means that I want to know that they are taking all possible steps to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again, but it also means providing compensation to the victims. A Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund has been established to help compensate victims of the factory collapse. A list of the donor companies is available on the Rana Plaza Arrangement's website. However, the Clean Clothes Initiative points out that many companies have not paid anything at all or haven't paid their fair share.

In terms of Loblaws, a Canadian company that sources much of its Joe Fresh clothing in Bangladesh, the CBC recently did a follow-up report. On its website, CBC states:

As part of its compensation package following the collapse, Loblaw paid three months wages to survivors who were making Joe Fresh clothes, about $150 per worker.  

It also recently donated $3 million to a compensation trust fund to help injured workers and the families of deceased workers.

And the company told the fifth estate it contributed $1 million to two organizations working to help survivors, Save the Children Bangladesh and the Centre for Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed.

The fifth estate has learned that Loblaw has recently hired one person to oversee its growing operations in Bangladesh. Last year, it had no one on the ground in Bangladesh to monitor its operations there or inspect the factories it uses.

I've asked the Clean Clothes Initiative to clarify how much it is calling on companies to contribute and I will update this section with more information if I receive a reply from them. Overall, they say that 1/3 of the required funds has been collected, but they haven't indicated how much of the remaining amount they are asking each company to contribute.

Is worker safety in Bangladesh the only ethical issue when buying clothing?

No, of course worker safety in Bangladesh isn't the only ethical issue that people should consider when they are buying clothing. This is just one aspect of corporate social responsibility in the garment industry. Where their materials come from, what ingredients are in those materials, how much their workers are paid, what their environmental impact is, whether they treat their employees with respect, and many other issues can and should come into play when making purchasing decisions. But when it comes to purchasing or promoting "Made in Bangladesh" clothing, understanding a brand's status under these agreements is a life or death situation.

What else?

This is a complicated issue that is continuing to evolve on a daily basis. A year has now passed since the Rana Plaza factory collapse and there are still new developments all the time. I try to stay on top of what is happening, but I can't cover absolutely everything in one blog post.

If anyone has questions or issues that they'd like to discuss further, please drop a note in the comments and I'd be happy to follow-up.

I would also suggest that you follow the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Bangladesh Accord (their social media links are available from their websites).

 

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Reader Comments (14)

I wouldn't be too quick to promote the companies who've signed the "good" agreement. Anyone who is selling $4.99 t-shirts is not paying a fair wage. Period.

Lots of people say "oh, but it's better than nothing" but it's really not much better than nothing. It's still not nearly enough. Many of those who have signed have done so only because it is a good publicity move. What they are saying to the public and what they are actually doing behind the scenes, sadly, are not the same thing. These companies are motivated by their bottom line. Nothing more.

Amanda

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFamilyNature

Amanda:

You're right that it isn't enough and that more needs to be done.

But the wages are definitely better than nothing. It means that some women who might have otherwise had to sell their children into slavery will be able to send them to school instead and if those kids go to school, they'll be able to get better jobs and create an even better life for their children. That is significant progress, but it doesn't happen overnight. It happens over generations.

There has been a 79% increase in the minimum wage in Bangladesh in the past year. Western consumers and Western countries need to be willing to absorb more of that, however, and not always keep demanding the $4.99 t-shirt.

April 17, 2014 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

Thanks for this! This issue has been on my mind so much since the tragedy last year. It's definitely complicated and I think consumer pressure will continue to encourage companies to make positive changes. I've been watching which companies have signed which agreement and your graphics are helpful. I'm not impressed with The Children's Place, who were implicated in the Rana Plaza disaster and have not taken meaningful action.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHolly

Not completely related, but NPR's Planet Money did a really cool seed-to-shirt expose about t-shirts, and they sourced one of their shirts in Bangledesh. Here is the related podcasts, http://www.npr.org/series/248799434/planet-moneys-t-shirt-project and here is some photos of the project. http://seedtoshirt.tumblr.com/

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Just checked out one of my favourite places to shop in Canada and I'm glad they support the Alliance. http://www.childrensplace.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/en/canadastore/content/social-responsibility

April 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Jennifer: You're right that they do support the Alliance, but it isn't something to be pleased about in my opinion. As I wrote in the post, the Alliance is the Walmart/Gap led agreement that has not binding. Under that Alliance, nothing will change. It will be business as usual and more people will die.

April 18, 2014 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

My bad. (Can I blame sleep deprivation? We're in the middle of a sleep regression here.) Here's hoping they add a Joe Fresh when they're finished renovating my Loblaws.

April 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

I, like so many other consumers, was thrilled with the fact that I could grab a new tee for $5 or less. Since going into business for myself and manufacturing my own products in Canada, I look at things a little differently. It just doesn't make sense that I can purchase a t shirt for $5. Heck, I'm hard pressed to grab a used tee from Good Will for that price. We buy too much and expect it for too little. The quality of our purchases has to suffer, which results in more waste and a cycle that continues on and on.
It's much more of an issue in North America in my opinion. I lived in Europe for some time and Europeans just don't consume the way we do. (well, at least the Swiss didn't) They buy less but ensure it's quality. This just makes more sense to me. 'Slow fashion'.....better stuff, fairer wages and less waste.

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkristin

I agree fast fashion is an issue. Myself and my partner have dove into this and started selling children's clothing. Our clothing is made in Argentina by small independent artists and designers. All our clothing is SWEAT SHOP FREE. We choose to support small companies in order to help those possibly less fortunate than us. My partners children are half Argentinian so it is close to our hearts. Please feel free to check us out @ Lambpoodle.com. Email us with any questions you may have.

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRita Love

I don't agree that Bangladesh must stay poor forever and ever and ever if we don't buy clothing from them. If you think about it, that's a really paternalistic attitude for people to have about the situation. We're saying they're probably children who don't know how to build their own economy, and Our Great Nation must step in and rescue them. I don't think they would appreciate that sentiment if they heard it expressed. I know I wouldn't.

Also, we didn't send these jobs overseas to do anything to help people in Bangladesh. We sent them because the corporations doing the hiring are angry that they have to abide by labor and environmental laws here in the U.S. Believe you me, there are labor and environmental activists in developing countries too. They just haven't gotten as far along as ours yet, and thanks to the various trade agreements sponsored by those same corporations, they are suffering more of an uphill battle.

I want to transition over to where I'm only buying clothing from the U.S. wherever possible. That's getting harder and harder to do but there are some cottage industries that do a pretty good job. You can still get U.S.-made underwear at least; Decent Exposures sells it. It's more expensive, but think about the money we all waste on food that's less than good for us or junk that our kids will play with once and never touch again.

Most of all we need to take care of our own jobs first. We don't take care of our people here at home, and not everyone can work in service jobs. Some are much better suited to factory work by their own admission. Is it fair that only social butterflies get to have work they really like anymore? I don't think so.

June 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDana

Dana:

I understand how that can sound paternalistic, but it isn't something that I just made up. I was sharing what I heard from people I know in Bangladesh when the factory collapse happened. I was sharing what I heard from the people when I visited the country. They are building their economy and they're doing it by marketing their ability to mass produce clothing at a great price for export markets.

June 4, 2014 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

I would not be too fast, who has signed to promote "good" agreement of the company. Anyone who is selling for $ 4.99 T shirt is the not paying fair wages. Period.
Many people say "Oh but better than nothing" but it's really not much better than nothing. This is still far from enough. Many people who have signed up to do not only because it is a good publicity move. They say to the public what they are actually doing behind the scenes sadly there is not the same thing. These companies are motivated by their bottom line.

November 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMr. wahid

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