My journey to become an informed and ethical consumer began several years ago. Like many, I loved the excitement of purchasing a new outfit or going to outlet malls with friends. Unfortunately, as much as I adored shopping with friends, I failed to realize how my purchases affected others.
After speaking with Cambodian factory workers, I realized there is more to my spending than what meets the eye. I learned about the long hours and unsafe conditions in which women and girls work each day. I determined that, in reality, purchases cost more than the price on the tag.
When a Bangladesh factory collapsed in May, I wrote an article describing how horrendous working conditions are all too often to blame for the deaths of thousands of women and girls each year. Essentially, factory owners and managers work men, women and children to death so that the rest of the world can have access to “cheap” clothing. This is not right.
Were factory owners and managers responsible for the collapse of the Bangladeshi factory?
Absolutely. Owners and managers forced employees to work fifteen hours in unsafe buildings and terrible working conditions.
Are the major companies to blame for poor monitoring in their supply chains?
Yes. Clothing produced in the factory included those from major companies such as Walt Disney, Wal-Mart, Benetton and Mango – all of which denied any responsibility for the collapse and/or the dangerous work environment.
Are we as consumers to blame?
I definitely think so. Although I try to be a socially conscious shopper, I also like to find bargains. As a result, I often purchase clothes and other goods from companies that do not ensure a safe work environment for their factory employees.
What can consumers do to help?
I am not asking you to stop buying clothes. As consumers, I want us to take a moment to consider how our purchases affect the lives of others.
The fight is not hopeless. Together we can create change for women and girls like those in Bangladesh.
Do YOU want to make a difference? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Research and utilize websites like Slavery Footprint and Free2Work. These organizations provide interactive tools that better enable you to understand what and who you are supporting with your purchases.
- Call your favorite companies and ask them if they implement the Women’s Empowerment Principles or the Fair Labor Association Standards - regulations that help to protect female factory workers. Explain that you do not want a repeat of the tragic incident in Bangladesh.
- Make a conscious choice to purchase goods from companies who pay their workers a fair wage. Compared to clothes made in unsafe working conditions, the cost of a t-shirt or a pair of jeans produced in a safe environment increases only USD 50 cents. More significantly, decent working conditions vastly improve the overall health and well-being of factory workers around the world.
- Advocate that companies must increase employee wages and enforce safety standards.
Since the disaster in Bangladesh, the Clean Clothes Campaign has organized two September meetings in Geneva to discuss the provision of long term compensation to victims suffering from the collapse as well as the potential for fair wages in the future. As of this writing, twelve clothing brands have committed to attend the meetings.
To learn more ways to help improve the working conditions of factory employees around the world, please see below:
Cover image courtesy of Rijans on Flickr (Creative Commons)