On April 24, we all heard about a factory building collapsing in Bangladesh. Dozens of people were declared dead, and it was horrifying to hear about this tragedy unfolding from afar. Photos of the scene showed a garment labelled Joe Fresh, and Canadian consumers suddenly felt they had played a part in this tragic event.

Now twelve days later, the death toll tops 600. Terrible grief has come to countless people in Bangladesh, and journalists around the world have grappled with the questions raised – some searching for solutions, others laying blame. Many shoppers have been questioning their role. Major retail players whose clothing was known to have been made in the building, namely Joe Fresh in Canada and Primark in the U.K. (with overlapping corporate ownership), have announced plans to compensate the victims and to change the way they work in Bangladesh. In this they were recently joined by a few other clothing retailers whose garments were also found in the rubble. Would they be doing so if their connection to the building had not been exposed? We have no way of knowing.

What next? The scale of this tragedy is enormous – I hope it will turn out to be a defining moment that changes the way we all think about where our clothing is made, and under what conditions. The Facebook page for Joe Fresh is packed with comments expressing outrage at the company’s abuses, and vowing to shop elsewhere. But where?

I am a huge advocate for buying local, but I know that Canadians cannot live on Canadian-made products alone. Our manufacturing sector is simply too small. Trade barriers are one challenge: Canadian manufacturers pay high duties on raw materials (such as cotton, which needs to be imported), while clothing made in Bangladesh arrives in Canada duty-free. And as we all know, vast wage differences have changed the geography of manufacturing, with clothing production often relegated to the poorest countries. We don’t want people to be harmed making products for us, but we don’t want to pay dramatically higher prices.

What is a conscientious consumer to do?

If you are concerned about the people making products for you being treated with respect and human dignity, you may wish to support an organization that’s committed to improving labour conditions overseas, or petition for stronger regulation of imports to Canada. You may choose to pay closer attention to where the products you buy come from. Many companies describe their policies on their websites, and some only use certified factories. But be aware that unless there is direct oversight in the producing country (not just occasional inspection visits), there is a great deal of subcontracting — and standards are difficult to control. Boycotting a company that has not adhered to decent labour standards will send a message, but be aware that others may be worse offenders. And if a garment is dirt cheap, you can be reasonably certain that that the person who made it is dirt poor. If this matters to you, pay closer attention to your buying habits. The cheapest, most exploited labour is often used for the cheapest garments. A higher quality garment will last longer and may save you money and effort in the long run, regardless of where it is made.

If you want to buy Canadian, there are a lot of excellent Canadian-made products available if you know where to look. Websites such as www.buycanadianfirst.ca, www.livinglocal.ca, and www.farmersmarketonline.ca  list thousands of products that are made in Canada. Retail craft shows such as the One of a Kind Show and smaller shows across Canada showcase Canadian-made products (both functional and decorative) and list them on their websites. And some independently-owned stores across Canada search for Canadian-made goods for their customers. If you want more local products, let your local retail businesses know, so that you can influence their buying decisions.

Have the garment factory tragedies in Bangladesh, and the recent discussions about worker safety and exploitation encouraged you to change your shopping habits? Do you feel empowered to influence the way our clothing is made, or overwhelmed? I’d love to know how this rising awareness has affected your decision-making, as well as the strategies you employ to shop with a clear conscience.

Devorah Miller
Red Thread Design

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As a student of arts administration several years ago, I learned about a survey in which the vast majority of urban residents said they were very happy to have a ballet company located in their city, but only a small percentage actually attended ballet performances.  As we have all learned from Facebook, it’s far easier to like something than to do something.

A few years ago I received an order from an independent children’s boutique in a small Ontario city. This beautiful shop had existed for many years, and featured many Canadian-made products. When I visited to meet the owner, I noticed a large Loblaws store just a few steps away, with enormous Joe Fresh banners featuring children’s clothing.

“What’s that like, being virtually next door?” I asked the owner. “The price competition must be a challenge.” Indeed it was.  A few months later, she decided to close up shop.

I don’t know precisely what went into making that decision, but I do have a sneaking suspicion that the choices of local shoppers had something to do with it. It’s hard to resist a great bargain – why buy adorable locally-made clothing when you can buy adorable cheap clothing?

I’ll tell you why. And I’m telling you this not just as a person who runs a small business with local production (honest!) but also as a mother on a tight budget. Today we heard of a catastrophic building collapse in Bangladesh, a factory that was allegedly making clothing for Joe Fresh and The Children’s Place, for Canadian consumers. Those tragedies happen because demand for low prices pushes down wages and safety standards. That’s the price paid for our fantastic bargains.

iStock_000023879590Small_Window Shopping

Thinking appreciative thoughts as you pass those cute independently-owned shops on your way to a big chain store doesn’t help to keep those businesses alive. But patronizing them does! The way I see it, buying local creates three big impacts:

  • It connects us to the people who make and sell the things we eat, use and wear every day. I don’t know about you, but I think that makes everyday life sweeter.
  • It keeps our local communities vibrant, busy, and interesting. Vive la différence! And perhaps most of all…
  • It ensures that we always have lots of choices about where to spend our money, and what products are available to us to bring into our homes and our lives. Local industry requires local participation, and it’s worth the effort.

Have you found ways to buy local more often, or more meaningfully? Is it a challenge? I would love to know your thoughts about this subject that’s literally close to home for so many of us.

Cheers,
Devorah
www.redthreaddesign.ca

I’ve already shared with you my outrage about the lax safety standards in garment factories that have led to the deaths of hundreds of workers overseas in the past few years, workers sewing clothing for us and for our children. But our outrage, however deeply felt at the moment of a catastrophe, is clearly not making an impact on the safety of workers, particularly those in Bangladesh, and I just can’t let it go.

These are not rare events. The devastating fire that killed more than 100 people in a garment factory in Bangladesh last week was notable only for its scale. Authorities declared that the loss of life would have been dramatically lower if the exits had not been locked from the outside.

Why would any company allow its products to be made in a facility that permits workers’ lives to be put at risk? Are we truly willing to sacrifice human life in exchange for low labour costs? What’s stopping us from demanding answers to these questions?

Katrina Onstad wrote an excellent article in The Globe and Mail last week on this subject entitled “The real cost of our ‘fast fashion’ consumption culture.” I encourage you to read it if you’re interested, not to provoke guilt but rather to increase mindfulness. The link is here.

I know very well, of course, that on the subject of children’s clothing it’s far more pleasant to think about beautiful colour and design, and natural to celebrate a great bargain.  But unless we all pay a little more attention to how our clothing is made, and start demanding that manufacturers meet standards of human fairness and safety, nothing is going to change.