Bangladesh – what’s my responsibility?

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A couple of weeks ago I got a great pair of Joe Fresh jeans at the MCC Abby East Thrift Shop where I volunteer. I hate buying jeans – I find them so hard to fit, so when I find a pair that do fit I’m usually thrilled. (These needed hemming, which my friend Belinda did for me – so grateful for people who can do that.)

This week, a building in which 2000 people worked, many of them women making clothing for Joe Fresh, among others, collapsed, killing over 275 people – a number that will surely rise. The news reports I heard said that police had condemned the building the day before but the owners forced the workers back the next day, apparently saying the building would last another 100 years. Several hours later, they were proven wrong.

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This photo taken from a USA Today story

The average wage of a person making clothing in Bangladesh is 14 cents an hour. North American companies like Joe Fresh, Walmart and Dress Barn all have clothing made in this country. We Canadians like to shop at these places because the clothing is affordable – totally understandable when you’re not making a celebrity wage or have a family to clothe. I know that I don’t want to pay $50 or $100 for a pair of jeans. These companies have all said that they have done due diligence and have had their worker’s situations audited for safety. Now it is coming to light that these audits are bogus and no one is holding factory owners truly accountable.

So what am I to do?

keep calm and don't be a hypocrite

One of the reasons that 95% of my clothing comes from thrift shops is because I prefer to give my money to charity than to big business. The irony of that is, of course, that someone else did buy that same clothing at the big business store, wore it and then donated it so I could feel virtuous buying it at the thrift shop. I don’t know how to get around that. I have to wear clothes and even if I could sew everything I want to wear, I imagine that purchasing fabric to do that would be fraught with the same ethical challenges. Short of growing my own cotton, wool and silk, learning how to shear, spin and weave, I will always be faced with this hypocritical conundrum.

Women work together to make soap at Sacred Mark, an MCC job creation program in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. These handmade soaps are sold around the world, including in Ten Thousand Villages stores in Canada and the U.S. For more information, go to tenthousandvillages.com. (MCC Photo Silas Crews)

Women work together to make soap at Sacred Mark, an MCC job creation program in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. These handmade soaps are sold around the world, including in Ten Thousand Villages stores in Canada and the U.S. For more information, go to tenthousandvillages.com. (MCC Photo Silas Crews)

Still, if I have to choose the lesser of all evils, I will continue to support organizations like MCC by purchasing my clothing there. I work for MCC, so yes, I am biased.  I have also been to Laos, Cambodia and Ukraine (3 of the 60 countries in which MCC has relief, development and peace programs) and have seen first-hand where my money goes and what it does. MCC is also in Bangladesh, where it has served people in need since 1970. Many of the projects it supports there directly benefit the poorest of women through micro-loans, employment and literacy programs and food and water projects. MCC thrift shops in BC contributed $1.5 million dollars to the work of MCC last year  – and I’m sure that other charities also benefit in that way from our purchases there.

So, I’ll wear my Joe Fresh jeans that cost me all of $3 but I’ll wear them with mixed feelings. I know that my purchase made a difference in the life of someone in need. I also know that I need to do much more to make this world a place where the word “need” is redundant.

What do you think consumers can do to make a difference?

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8 Responses to Bangladesh – what’s my responsibility?

  1. La Vern says:

    I struggle with the same issues. I wonder if people who see me shop think that I’m weird. For every item I look at, I find the label to find out where the item was made. I don’t know if it makes a huge difference, but if enough people do the same thing, it will. I try to buy “made in Canada” whenever possible, or another country I would think would have fair treatment for their workers, no child labour, etc, even when I thrift, and most of my clothes are thrifted. I have had luck with Suzy Shier (though not as much as in the past), some Costco brands (love the “Segments” brand t-shirts) and now and then some Sears stuff. But nobody’s perfect. Sometimes it is just plain hard to do, especially when looking for clothes for the men in our household.

    And yes, then there’s the issue of fabric. My dream is to wear clothing made from local, organic cloth made by local people who got a fair wage, but then I wonder what it would be made of. Leaves and maybe some tree bark? Yikes, that sounds comfy.

    It would certainly be more expensive to live the dream but then maybe we would need to learn to have fewer articles of clothing. I mean, how many t-shirts do we really need?

    • you know, i bet that someone out there could figure out a perfectly good way to create wearable fabric out of leaves and tree bark. i think you (and the others who have posted here) have hit on a very important part of this equation: the fact that we don’t need as much as we own. i think that’s been true for me in all areas of my life, not just my closet… but my closet might be a good place to start.

  2. Laura says:

    I recently read the book Overdressed: The shockingly high cost of cheap fashion by Elizabeth Cline. While I didn’t learn a lot of new things, it pulled together many thoughts I had about what’s happened to fashion these days. Definitely worth the read. Suggestions of what to do include thrifting, refashioning, handmade, supporting local designers and small businesses, etc. But the biggest thing we need to do is change our attitude about fashion and the constant need for something new and fresh. Buy fewer items that may cost a little more because they were made locally and the designer is receiving a living wage. It’s a tough one that I think most people (as in society in general, not my social circle) are not even considering.

  3. Lorie Key says:

    I myself have been faced with the exact conundrum! Thanks for sharing that you go through the same process! I have often passed up brand names from a questionable company. We used to pass up Nike in the thrift shops regardessthe condition simply because of child labour issues of the company in the past. I think the only thing that remains for consumers is education, education, education. Let’s do as much as we can to educate ourselves on the practices of the companies we buy from! We have so much power within our grasp to make the world a better place for EVERYONE! It starts by becoming aware. Thanks for this post. I look forward, as usual, to more…

  4. Megan says:

    “The irony of that is, of course, that someone else did buy that same clothing at the big business store, wore it and then donated it so I could feel virtuous buying it at the thrift shop. I don’t know how to get around that. ”

    I was so affected by the deaths in Bangladesh. I’m grateful to see you articulate your thoughts. I think it’s important to continually connect people with the true effects of consumer decisions that seem harmless (and even positive!) at the get-go.

    As a kid, I don’t think I ever connected my love of thrift with my non-love of consumer culture. But the older I get, the more solid I feel about who I am, and why I thrift. I’m not virtuous. I like to say I’m just poor. I don’t want to think that my small gestures are more than a drop in the bucket when over 1,000 human beings died in that senseless building collapse. I can only hope that what I can do is enough for me, for one person.

    ps. Good work on the jeans 🙂

    • I have also been hugely affected by this event. This blog is just a beginning for me. I read the book that someone else suggested here “Overdressed: the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion.” wow. that gave me food for thought. I have a few ideas brewing that i will blog about in the very near future, so stay tuned on that! I love the way you articulated the connection between “consumer decisions that seem harmless” and the actual effect of our consumer decisions. i think that’s part of what it means to live in a global village. we really do have to think hard about our consumption… it’s just too easy to be lazy. sigh.

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