News outlets were still whirring about the tragedy in Bangladesh on April 24 that killed over 1,000 workers, when a new fire spread through another building on Thursday, killing 8 more. This follows a fire just last November in the country that killed 112 workers in a factory used by Walmart suppliers, and another fire killing 30 Bangladeshi workers in 2010.
It follows Nike sweatshop scandals, suicide nets surrounding the rooftops at Apple's Foxconn plants, and Mike Daisey's incendiary (though discredited) play — The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs — that sought to tell the troubled story of the people who make the things we love.
We are living in an age of technological globalism, dominated by a perpetual irony that nearly everything is made by hand ... from the computer I'm typing on to the shirt I'm wearing, to the iPhone I'll use later today to read this story.
Everything is made by hand.
Growing outrage over the Bangladeshi tragedy has prompted some retailers to begin listing information on their websites about factory conditions and origins — a well-intentioned practice that's made complex by the increasingly complex nature of the things we buy. The pants I'm wearing my have been assembled in one factory, but the cotton and dye and buttons and stitching may all hail from elsewhere.
Yet there seems to be real demand for information, prompted by consumers with a conscience crisis. Some studies suggest that clothing with a "Fair Trade Label" has a positive effect on sales over comparably priced, and even underpriced garments. Much like what retailers have observed with other fair trade goods, like coffee and chocolate.
"There's a real demand for sweat-free products," explains Ian Robinson, a researcher at the University of Michigan.
Several large suppliers — Nike, Walmart, Gap, J.C. Penny, and Target among them — have joined together to form The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, in an attempt to standardize fair trade conditions in the garment industry.
But can this really work? Factory owners have cited razor-thin margins as reason for not updating factory infrastructure, and properly addressing safety concerns. Factories are exactly as cheap as companies are willing to buy and as consumers are willing to pay. While some may throw down a few extra dollars for a graphic-t if it’s "fair trade," price is still king and the world is competitive.
"Most people probably would not hire a child, lock them in their basement, and have them make their clothes. But this system is so abstracted," explains Neeru Paharia, assistant professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. "If the shoes are cute," she says, "if they like the shows — they actually think sweatshop labor is less wrong."
And then there's the opposite problem to consider — that reactionary behavior might run counter to the interests of those most marginalized. That American guilt might lead to the closing down of unsafe factories … which would displace workers and potentially endanger already struggling families. A troubled conscience may be the first step, but simply paying a little more for our products isn't a solution. We ought to be invested in the communities we buy from and work with, developing the third world to be something more than a supplier to the first.
We ought to remember that we are a country that once was plagued by the same sorts of tragedies that befall the factories that make our stuff. Only we haven't really solved labor abuses, we've just exported them. Out of sight, and over there, lost in an intricate cog of suppliers and parts and regulation and oversight, so that by the time it gets to us, we are protected from everything but brand and price.
It is long overdue we start to have the challenging conversations — that maybe what we’ve been doing isn't right. If we are to be the shining "city on a hill" and take the moral high ground as an increasingly-interconnected world navigates new and complicated growing pains, it ought to be upon our shoulders to figure it out.
And it begins by taking a moment to think of the people who make our stuff.