PD Editorial: The power to make change
Published: Monday, May 6, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 6, 2013 at 4:23 p.m.
Go into any grocery store, and it's pretty easy to walk out with “fair trade” coffee. The label gives consumers assurance that they're not contributing to the low-wage exploitation of coffee farmers. Selective consumers also can help reduce the number of conflict diamonds, stones sold to support armed conflict, civil war or civil rights abuses, on the market.
So what about certifications that assure consumers they're not contributing to problems that put lives of garment factory workers at risk, lives like the 600 lost recently in the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh and the 112 lives lost in a factory fire there in November?
The options are few. Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, based in Arlington, Va., is the world's largest certification program for the apparel industry. But the organization only covers about 1,850 factories in 60 countries. There are more than 5,000 factories just in Bangladesh, where the minimum wage is $37 — a month. Small wonder it's become the world's second largest garment producer next to China.
Boycotting products made in Bangladesh is no solution, as it's most likely to have a punitive effect on low-wage workers who rely on the garment industry for their livelihoods.
Greater pressure needs to come from major clothing companies and retail giants themselves. There are hopeful signs that this is happening as PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and Tchibo, a German retailer, have both reportedly endorsed a plan calling for Western retailers to finance fire-safety efforts and structural improvements at factories in Bangladesh. But other clothing companies need to get on board to make it work.
In seeing what can be done, there are lessons to be found in U.S. history as well. The tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911, which claimed 146 lives, led to landmark legislation requiring improved factory safety standards. The blaze also helped spur the growth of unions that fought for safer working conditions. At the moment, unions essentially are nonexistent in Bangladesh.
Western clothiers that show the courage to make a real difference in these areas are likely to find support from American consumers who are showing they want more than cheap products with their dollars. They want change.
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