The clothes you buy help fuel a flawed global system

Gilana Levavi ('14) / Eastside Opinions Editor

Check the labels of the clothing you are wearing. Chances are, few of your clothes were made in the United States. In fact, 98 percent of the clothing purchased in this country was imported from abroad.

Much of the clothing we wear is produced in unsafe, inhumane, sweat-shop-like conditions, by underpaid, overworked employees. This issue was again brought to the world’s attention after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh killed more than 1100 people this past April.

As a result of the Rana Plaza Collapse, and a series of horrific factory fires in Bangladesh earlier this year, several major companies, including Disney, decided to pull all of their manufacturing out of Bangladesh. Though this sounds like a good way to try to lobby factory owners to improve conditions, the immediate effect is that those workers who had worked on Disney products will lose their jobs. For these workers, any job is far better than no job, so simply boycotting foreign manufacturers is not at all an effective long-term solution.

Much of the problem seems to come down to an American demand for cheap products, which sends companies overseas where labor costs are much cheaper, due to low or non-exist minimum wage  and labor regulations. According to an infographic published by CNN, it would cost almost four times as much to produce a denim shirt in the United States as it does in Bangladesh.

The goal of companies is to maximize profit, so it is understandable that they would opt to produce clothing as inexpensively as possible. And the goal of the American consumer tends to be to purchase as much as possible at as low a cost as possible, so it is understandable that they opt to purchase these products.

Yet the human cost of producing things so cheaply will ultimately far exceed the monetary profits.  Perhaps the dissemination of information about poor manufacturing conditions around the world could eventually spur a change in culture. Maybe eventually, consumers would be willing to purchase perhaps just 2 or 3 well-made, humanely produced t-shirts as opposed to 10 or 12 cheaply made ones

Buying American-made products, which are known to be produced under humane conditions, is a short-term measure that can help. But we live in a global community controlled by an international, interdependent economy. As such, attempting to limit our production and consumption to only the domestic market cannot be an effective long-term solution. Starting at home makes sense, but ultimately the American government, companies and consumers must take at least some stake in the industrial conditions around the world.

This is a deep-rooted, complex issue that needs to be approached from several different angles, with long-term human interests and sustainability in mind. The victims of the Rana Plaza collapse, as well as so many other industrial tragedies, must not be forgotten. We must use these memories to fuel a search for long-term solutions. One way to at least begin to make a small difference, though, is to become informed with the harsh realities of the global economic system that delivers your t-shirts and jeans to you.

Check out these two features from nytimes.com for more perspectives on this issue:

http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/12/12/whos-responsibile-for-worker-safety-abroad/blame-bangladesh-not-the-clothing-companies

http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/05/02/when-does-corporate-responsibility-mean-abandoning-ship