Shoppers' habits not changed by garment plant fire

Before purchasing a shirt, shoppers will run their hands over the fabric, look at the price tag and wonder how it will hold up in the washing machine. Some might even ask if it makes them look fat.
Associated Press
Dec 1, 2012

The one detail, however, that is rarely considered: What are the conditions like for the workers making the shirt?

A horrific fire that raced through a Bangladesh garment factory Saturday, killing 112 people, has put the spotlight — at least temporarily — back on those workers and their sometimes treacherous work environment.

The factory, owned by Tazreen Fashions Ltd., made clothing for several retailers around the globe including Wal-Mart, Sears and The Walt Disney Co. All three companies have distanced themselves from responsibility for the incident, saying they didn't know that their subcontractors were using the factory.

Holiday shoppers have also maintained their distance from the tragedy.

"Truthfully, I hadn't even thought about it," said Megan Miller of Philadelphia as she walked out of the Disney Store in Times Square. "I had Christmas on my mind and getting my kids something from New York."

Shoppers from Cincinnati to Paris to Singapore all said the same thing: They were aware of the fatal factory fire, but they weren't thinking about it while browsing stores in the days since. Brand name, fit and — above all — prices were on their minds.

"Either our pockets get lighter or we have to live with more blood on our hands," said Amy Hong, a college student who was at a store in Singapore. "I try not to think about it."

Experts who survey shoppers say the out of sight, out of mind attitude is nothing new.

"When you talk to them about their biggest concerns, where something is made, or the abuses in some country, almost never show up," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, which interviews 10,000 to 15,000 consumers a week, mostly on behalf of retailers. "The numbers are so small, I quit asking the question."

Convenience is much more important to shoppers.

Take Tammy Johnson who was at a Walmart in Bloomington, Minn. this week. She lives nearby and appreciates that the store has a large grocery section in addition to clothing and other goods.

"It's easier and it's cheaper," she said of her decision to shop there. "I hate that, but it is true."

Even those who want to make socially responsible purchases a priority have little information available to work with.

There's no widespread system in place to say where all the materials in a shirt come from let alone whether it was made in a sweatshop or not.

A label saying "Made in USA of imported fabrics" doesn't provide as much information to shoppers as they might think. Maybe tailors assembled it under good working conditions, but what about the people who wove the fabrics? Another label saying that a shirt is made from 100 percent organic cotton fails to say anything about the conditions of the factory in which it was made.

"What do they know at the point of sale about where it comes from, other than the tag?" said Paco Underhill, founder of Envirosell, which studies consumer behavior. "Our hearts are generally are in the right places. It's the question of making sure we have the knowledge and pocketbook to follow."

And it's not just clothing. It is hard to tell where televisions or laptop components are made.

Companies selling products say they even struggle to tell. Work is often given to subcontractors who themselves use subcontractors. While many major companies stipulate ethics and standards that their subcontractors must follow, policing them is a costly, time-consuming process that sounds easier than it is.

In the case of the Bangladesh factory, Wal-Mart said it had received a safety audit showing the factory was "high-risk" and had decided months before the blaze to stop doing business with Tazreen. But it said a supplier had continued to use Tazreen without authorization.

In recent years, consumers have become much more aware about the food they eat, and where it comes from.

Supermarkets are full of eggs laid by free-range chickens, organically-grown apples and beef from grass-fed, hormone-free cows. Some upscale restaurants now name the farm that provided them with pork chops. And customers pay a premium for these foods.

The difference: They perceive a direct benefit, since the food is going into their bodies.

Ethical choices when buying clothing — or the latest version of Apple's iPhone — are much more blurred.

Jean MacLeod, who was shopping at a Walmart on the south side of Indianapolis, is willing to pay more for goods if they are made in an ethically responsible manner and does it all the time when she buys food.

Walmart wants the best prices for its customers, she said, but the company also has power as a buyer to make sure factories have decent working conditions.

"They should be able to say, 'Look it, we don't want to buy from you unless you do things a little more our way,'" MacLeod said. "If they don't want to buy from them, then that means that factory will go out of business."

Arguments have been made that producing items with cheap labor isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Factories in the Third World can provide jobs with wages well above a region's average. They can help lift families out of severe poverty. The catch is that there are fewer safeguards to protect workers from being exploited from unscrupulous employers.

At the Bangladesh factory, locked exits prevented many workers from escaping after fire broke out.

It draws eerie parallels to New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, where 146 people died within 18 minutes of a fire starting in a factory with locked exits.

That fire was the catalyst for widespread changes in labor laws in U.S. But in the 100 years since, the desire for cheap clothing hasn't abated and costly labor has just shifted to factories overseas.

"To put it maybe too frankly, profit and efficiency and competition always trump safety and health," said James A. Gross, a labor relations professor at Cornell University.

Not every company sees things that way.

Los Angeles-based American Apparel promotes itself as a line of "sweatshop free" clothing. Its founder and CEO, Dov Charney, said that companies can control working conditions — they just need to bring production closer to home. American Apparel knits, dyes, cuts and sews all of its products in-house.

"When the company knows the face of its worker, that's important," Charney said. "You can control working conditions and quality."

Yes, American Apparel spends more on labor, but it isn't as much as you would expect. Charney estimates that an imported T-shirt selling for $6 at Walmart would cost about $6.30 if produced domestically thanks to the company's massive scale.

"The consumer can care. They can buy from companies that are committed to fair trade and try to seek out those companies," he said.

Take Nike.

In the mid-1990s, the sneaker giant came under pressure to change its ways after numerous reports of child labor, low wages and poor working conditions. Eventually wages climbed, minimum age requirements were put in place and Nike increased monitoring at its factories.

But such change only comes after persistent public pressure.

"Clothes makers will always do what they want, but the buyer should educate himself," said Paris shopper Pierre Lefebvre.

Not all buyers have that luxury. Family budgets are tight.

"Especially with this economy, we like our money to go as far as it can," said Lesley Schuldt, who left a Cincinnati Macy's this week with five shopping bags worth of jewelry, cookware and gifts. "I have no idea where half the stuff I bought was made, but I imagine it was not in the U.S."

 

Comments

OMG.LOL.WT_

It's just unbridled capitalism at its best. Don't worry, be happy.

wiredmama222

This is inexcusable. Turning your head, or dening your responsiblility does not make you less culpable for your part in this. You must know who you buy from.

The best thing would be to start buying from US manufacturers if you don't want this to continue. So it costs more...so be it. Do you honestly think the American public would stop buying if it costs a little more? I really doubt it. Stop lying to us that it is " made in the usa" if the fabric is coming from elsewhere. That isn't true, is it.

I would rather spend $10 more for true US fabric then find out it came from some sweatshop in some foreign country. Stop lying to us about where fabrics and clothing really comes from and having it fall apart after five washings.

Buy it in the USA and have it last a little longer. Move your factories back home and make everything here. Employee US citizens to do the work. Stop trying to save a buck. We understand the outcome and are willing to cooperate with the end result if the people are employed.

This has to stop. Let the rest of the world employ THERE people and let us employ our own. I, for one, am sick and tired of this "global exchange' of labor and work. It has to stop so companies like Walmart and Disney can make higher profits.

Too bad, live with what you have, you greedy bastiches like we all do. Move things home and employee more people.

Maybe your bottom lines might be slow to grow, but you will be better off in the long run. Move things home and get with the program before we shut you down for good. And we can. We can. And we will.

KnuckleDragger

I put money on it you shop at Walmart and have a house full of foreign made products. It's okay, my dad bashes Walmart too, talks about buying American and is a big hypocrite. Not only does he have a house full of Chinese junk... He shops at Walmart more than I do.

wiredmama222

actually, I shop at JCPenney and Sears mostly for clothes.

I won't buy anything electrical at Walmart at all.

The only thing I get at walmart is haircolor, my husbands sticks for his glucose meter and maxi pads.

luvblues2

TMI...:)

starryeyes83

I like the tags that say, " Made in Mexico with USA componets " WTH?

No kidding - it was on a jacket and shirt which I had ordered some time ago.

CAST THE FIRST STONE

Google top ten things not made in america it is stunning. one of them is railroad tracks. How can you make heavy steel tracks and ship them on a boat here cheaper than we can make them..yes that is right all the #(&%# that gov takes first.

kURTje

What's in a name? This comes to mind.......bu SIN ess. Most would sell their soul for $$.

Kimo

Those jobs were shipped out of "Right to Work" low wage States down south.

Sam Walton business model.

Too late to close the barn door. The cows got out and were hit by a train made in China.

Kimo

Re: "my dad bashes Walmart too, talks about buying American and is a big hypocrite."

He must be proud of a son that calls him a "hypocrite".........

KnuckleDragger

Just call it like I see it, even if it is my own family members. By the way, look on your computer and tell me where it was made? Hypocrite!! Just tired of the union folks touting the buy American mantra, but walk into Walmart on payday and these same folks have their carts filled with stuff made in China. If you can't see the hypocrisy in it, you are blind.

wiredmama222

My point was, which escaped you, that if companies brought things HOME to be made right here in America this country would be back on its feet in no time at all. Instead to raise their bottom lines, they do all on the cheap and when something like this happens, they run for cover.

Even if we paid a little more, buying something from here instead of this dumb "global economic" junk is better having Americans working than doing business with the four corners of the earth just to save a dime and make a dollar.

That was my point if you read the entire thing. But you missed that part.

By the way, what kind of car or truck do you drive?

KnuckleDragger

I drive a Chevy and a Pontiac. As for where you buy your electronics, Walmart or Sears, it doesn't matter, most are made in the same place, China. Try to find a TV made in America, they don't make them, same with computers, cell phones, etc. Try to find one. The difference is you will likely find it a bit cheaper at Walmart.

OMG.LOL.WT_

I did google " top ten things not made in america" and could NOT find railroad tracks. Then I googled "top ten imports". Weren't on that list either.

Kimo

@nucklehead

When I was a pup everything I bought was American made. I bought a couple of Japanese wrenches in 1956. When I got home my dad said: "If you and the rest of America continue to buy imported junk, you will end up out of a job and have no money to buy anything". Not bad thinking for a hunky with a fifth grade education. From that day on, I bought Craftsman made in USA tools. Even Craftsman sold us out, half the crap they sell is made in China. Sam Walton did more to bring America down than any other individual in my lifetime. He was the king of outsourcing.......
BTW I don't shop at walmart but it doesn't seem to bother them.......

The cows got out a long time ago and the products made in America are few and far between, given a choice, I buy American, cost is not a factor......

All my wheels are union made.... including my Harley..........

All you clowns save the "how many parts on that Harley are made in China".
We have beat that hog to death......

KnuckleDragger

@kimo. Hey, I'm just pointing out the hypocrisy. The unions push the American made mantra, and my dad is just an example of someone who also pushes it to others, but doesn't really practice it himself. You need go no farther than than a school employee parking lot to see how members of the teachers union feel about buying so-called American made cars, most look like import car lots. The point I am making is that the biggest pushers of this idea don't bother to practice it themselves. I probably spend more time looking to see if something is made in the USA than my father does. I honestly do look, and if it is not ridiculously more expensive I will buy it. Bottom line is that I have a family of 5 to support and I still need to live within a budget. I'm not going to always buy the American made product or vice versa if it breaks the budget. Now when the kids are finally gone, I may have a bit more to spend and then cost will not necessarily be a factor :) As for Craftsman tools, that is all I have used since I was a kid. Notice that since they started farming the production out to China, if a tool breaks and you bring it in for a lifetime warranty replacement they bring you out a used tool as a replacement? No longer do they give you a new tool, that went away several years ago. At any rate, have a nice day :)

Bluto

You know I didn't always get along or agree with everything my father said or did , but I love him enough not to judge him and I respect his opinions . He did after all raise me to be who I am . I LOVE YA DAD !!!

wiredmama222

AMEN...and I wish mine where still here to tell him so. There will come a day when he will miss him all the time, like I miss mine and I am sure many miss theirs

KnuckleDragger

I love my dad also, but opinions are only valid if you practice what you preach, otherwise it is hypocrisy. I wouldn't tell my kids to buy american if through my actions I did otherwise. This was not to be disrepctful to my father. Although we don't agree politically, we both respect each other. Again, I was just using it as an example, it doesn't really out him because it is an anonymous post.

Centauri

Take a good look at Flexible Flyer sleds now being made in China. Read the reviews of how the cheap aluminum rivets pop lose after only a couple of hours use. Those older Flexible Flyer sleds were quality built with thicker steel, better wood and steel bolts. Go into your local store and look at the poor quality construction. Would you trust your child going down a hill unable to steer because a rivet popped or the sled came apart?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fle...

Randy_Marsh

Well look at the richy rich types with thier flexible flyer sleds, We went to the junk yard and found a old car hood for a sled. Now that thing was built to last, Just a huge pain dragging it up the hill.

Centauri

American companies making goods in the USA are under attack by armed government goons.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thereco...
"The raids at two Nashville facilities and one in Memphis recalled a similar raid in Nashville in November 2009, when agents seized a shipment of ebony from Madagascar. They were enforcing the Lacey Act, a century-old endangered species law that was amended in 2008 to include plants as well as animals. But Juszkiewicz says the government won't tell him exactly how — or if — his company has violated that law."

http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/0...
"It was seven months ago that federal agents with guns drawn raided the Gibson guitar factories in Nashville and Memphis. A half million dollars worth of Indian rosewood and ebony was seized under the premise that it had been imported illegally. The feds also took a number of guitars and computer hard drives. The factory was shut down for the day and employees told to go home.

Yet after all this time, the Department of Justice has shown no sign that it will file criminal charges against Gibson. What’s more – it has been almost 3 years since federal agents first raided Gibson (November 2009), seizing a quantity of wood from Madagascar. No decision on criminal charges in that case either."

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.co...
"Gibson Guitar Corporation has agreed to pay $350,000 in penalties to settle federal charges that it illegally imported ebony Madagascar to use for fret boards, ending a criminal investigation that had drawn fire from conservatives as an example of over-reaching by the government, the Justice Department announced on Monday."

Sometimes it is much easier and cheaper to settle than to drag it on for years and pay millions in legal fees. The government has an unlimited supply of money from taxpayers to win in court. Gangsters in Chicago used to make individuals and businesses pay for "protection" or else. You pay and you are left alone for a while.

If Gibson shipped their manufacturing to China, would you blame them?

Rationally Speaking

Try to buy MADE IN AMERICA. Not even the auto industry has a vehicle totally made in the US. Parts from Mexico and Canada. I would prefer to support a company in the US which manufactures its products in the US entirely.

KnuckleDragger

And after GMs contract is up with KBI you will have to suffer with Chinese made wheel bearings and hubs too.

Kelly

I love Walmart. Go there every chance I get.