Pi Attitude Zone: Ethics & Altruism

Making the World Safe For Fashion

Over a thousand garment workers died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.  The disaster already ranks with the world’s worst industrial accidents.

The Bangladeshi government’s decision to work with the International Labor Organization will make it less likely that such a horror will be repeated, though problems of local corruption, cynicism and profiteering will have to be addressed.  Western companies sourcing product from countries like Bangladesh have operated by industry codes of conduct for two decades, and now look like hurrying to strengthen them.

But will this make enough difference?  Importers of textiles from poorer countries operate by business principles which are unlikely to change:  keeping retail prices low and competitive, moving production to source markets where delivered cost will be cheaper, and delaying orders until the last possible minute. 

The last-minute habit is a logical response to volatile fashion trends, and an unwillingness to commit to bulk ordering of fashion lines that may not take off.  If they do, it’s a mad scramble to supply sudden demand peaks.  The rush-factor aggravates safety problems.  But suppliers who don’t deliver on time don’t get their contracts renewed. 

All of those ‘principles’ stand opposed to a greater ethical principle, that all factory staff should work in reasonable comfort in a safe working environment.  Yet the only way manufacturers can keep on supplying the desired variety and fashion-buzz at price points that people will pay is to squeeze the people at the bottom of the chain: the workers.  (Who, it has to be said, live in fear of losing even these meager wages).

Consumers know perfectly well there is somehow a connection between cheap store prices and low wages in sweatshops.  But is that what they are thinking about as they riffle through the racks of clothes?   How ready are people to reflect on uncomfortable truths as they buy?  It is axiomatic that “the customer is king” (or queen, in this case), and invariably gets what she wants.  Our implacable commitment to novelty and variety forces the clothing industry into shorter and shorter product life-cycles.  If we go to a favorite store and find there’s nothing new, we walk out and look elsewhere.

Pi says:  moral pressure from consumers can achieve a lot, for instance through internet campaigns. But little will change until brand chains are prepared to charge, and their customers to pay, an extra five dollars for that long-sleeved sequinned tee-shirt dress  -- and invest the extra in worker welfare.

Zone: Ethics & Altruism Country: Asia / Pacific Product – Business / Professional