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This article is from Issue 64: July/August 2013

Does it Matter Where Your Clothes Come From?

A few years ago, I bought a Joe Fresh shirt that was, in my eyes, perfect: comfortable, the right color, the right fit and also the right price. I walked to the checkout with a sense of accomplishment. By saving money, I felt I was practicing Christian stewardship. Each good deal would give me margin, I thought, to meet other needs and give more generously elsewhere.

What I didn’t realize at the time, however, is that low prices often have a high cost.

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed with about 3,500 workers inside. Large cracks had been discovered in the walls the day before, but the workers were told if they did not enter the building, their month’s wages would be withheld. Some were even threatened with beatings. So the workers filed back to their work stations.

Hours later, the building crumbled, killing more than 1,100 people.

Joe Fresh, The Children’s Place and Benetton were some of the labels manufacturing their products in the factory that collapsed. Many other companies, including Wal-mart as the largest, also manufacture their clothing in Bangladesh. The average monthly wage of a garment worker in the region is $37, and this low cost of labor is what gives companies higher profit margins. What’s more, Rana Plaza is one of many factories where safety violations have caused such disasters.

This is the backstory on the other side of the price tag many consumers never see.

Here is where the finger pointing begins. The race to the bottom, a byproduct of unchecked capitalism, ensures that no one is “really responsible” for what happened. It becomes a classic case of plausible deniability, the condition in which a party can believably deny knowledge of a reality because the system has deliberately shielded them from the full picture.

Low prices often have a high cost.

The owner of the plaza that housed the garment factories won’t claim responsibility because the factory owner chose to operate in the building without demanding structural upgrades first.

The owners of the the garment factories won’t claim responsibility because they are only trying to meet the demands of the their multinational corporation clients.

The corporations who sell clothing in their stores won’t claim responsibility because they assume the Bangladesh government is enforcing labor laws that align with their company codes
of conduct.