It’s not that the stories of collapsed factories and horrific garment fires are lost on Christine James.
It’s just that, like so many consumers, she feels nearly powerless when it comes to the conditions in which her clothes are made. And she’s learned not to expect to find clothes made in the United States at the big chain stores.
“I know that there’s no way that, probably, it’s financially feasible to request that of them,” said James, 25, a business student at SUNY Buffalo State. “Obviously, their big thing would be to keep customers coming and to have as cheap a product as possible.”
We’re living in the age of conscious consuming – where owning a hybrid and shopping at the farmers’ market can say as much about you as the SUV you used to cruise through the drive-thru.
It’s easy to find bananas and coffee that are fairly traded. We’ve learned to worry about where our ground beef comes from and to carry canvas bags to the market.
But want to find out whether the people who made your tank top had safe and fair working conditions? Good luck. Women’s clothing, where neon might be in today and out tomorrow, is even tougher.
This age of shopper sensibility has made us aware of everything from vegetable seed patents to chemicals in plastics. But, in the world of clothing, we’re still largely in the dark.
That became tragically clear in recent weeks as the death toll climbed above 600 people in a collapsed building in Bangladesh that housed clothing factories that made products sold in the United States. Companies that contracted with suppliers in the building have been slow to come forward, and Benetton was an embarrassment after it first denied it had links to the building only to have photographs surface of its clothes in the rubble.
With many retailers unwilling to reveal details of how clothing is made, shoppers are given an easy excuse to trade better standards for bargains.
Labels might opaquely tell us where a shirt is made, but we’re left to wonder whether that factory is helping to pull workers to better living standards or simply putting lives at risk by taking advantage of cheap labor.
There is guidance out there, like the Good Guide app that ranks products on social impact. But in a global economy, where companies can simply shift manufacturing to cheaper countries, how do shoppers ensure executives are living up to their promises?
Dinash Lal is well aware of the dilemma socially savvy shoppers face. He was dressed in a fitted gray polo, khakis and Kenneth Cole sunglasses as he pushed his son down Elmwood Avenue in a stroller last week.
There’s no doubt, he acknowledged, that his shirt was likely made in conditions he wouldn’t like. He thinks about trimming his wardrobe to a few hand-tailored suits. But he also realizes that, in an intertwined economy, even the best individual intentions can make little progress.
“You can even go as far as making your own clothing, but say you have a retirement plan, it’s very likely that some of the companies that you’re invested in are those that you don’t necessarily agree with their business practices because of moral or ethical reasons,” Lal said.
Hundreds dead in a factory collapse; 112 perished in a garment factory fire in November. How many more deaths will it take before consumer consciousness catches up?