The Joe Fresh store on Fifth Avenue in New York is absolutely beautiful, a repurposing of a classic SOM bank building. It's full of nice stuff that is flying out the door, some of which was made in Savar, Bangladesh, in a building that collapsed last week, killing over 300 workers. Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail wonders:
If you’re wearing Joe Fresh, do you have hundreds of deaths on your hands? Are our clothing bargains creating poverty, misery and death in poor countries? Would the world be better off if we didn’t buy clothes made in Bangladesh?
Saunders thinks that in general, globalism has been good for people at both ends of the supply chain.
The garment boom has helped reduce poverty in the West (by reducing clothing costs) and in the East (by providing wages far higher than subsistence farming or casual labour). The next step is to remain connected, and to demand the sort of workplace standards that should be universal.
Stephanie Nolen agrees, noting how good the garment factories have been for the Bangladeshis:
They account for 75 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports. And Bangladesh is making massive inroads against poverty. It started from the nadir, so it still has low literacy, poor health indicators, high corruption. But maternal mortality has been cut in half in a decade. Ninety-five per cent of kids get their vaccinations.
Perhaps. But there are a lot of good reasons for people not to buy cheap, almost disposable clothing. Jasmin wrote about it a few years ago, and it is worth republishing her explanation of why local eco-fashion is so much better:
1. Time and effort is money It may seem counterintuitive that sustainable crops such as organic cotton, free from the trappings of GMO, chemical pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers, would actually cost more to grow, but the truth of the matter is that these toxic shortcuts are precisely what enables farmers to keep their costs down. Harvesting organic cotton is also more labor intensive because it's done without the use of chemical defoliation aids.
2. Fair is fair A point of pride for many American eco labels is that their goods are manufactured locally in the United States, or at least fairly in an overseas facility that doles out what constitutes a living wage for its workers. Most companies, especially those without the supply-chain muscle of big-box stores, would be hard-pressed to price their garb inexpensively without resorting to grossly underpaid minions in a factory in Bangladesh. It's unrealistic to expect something to be cheap, equitable, and well-made--something's gotta give. If you pick up an unbelievable steal, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone down--way down--the line is paying for those savings. And it's not Mister CEO in the fancy pinstripe suit and the corner office.
3. Don't pick on the little guy It's all about economies of scale. While the organic market continues to grow and thrive, it's still a small slice of the overall consumer-spending pie. Inventory-wise, the volume of goods produced is also infinitesimally smaller compared to what mass-market manufacturers churn out on a daily basis, which makes everything from marketing to shipping less cost-effective. On the plus side, sustainable products tend to be better crafted, which makes for longer life spans than the majority of disposable clothing and accessories you can get on the cheap at artificially depressed prices (see sweatshop labor, industry clout, etc.)
There is a high price to be paid for cheap stuff.