Crews are still digging through the remains of a Bangladesh garment factory that collapsed last week, in a horrific reminder of the cost we pay for inexpensive, foreign-made goods.
The incident claimed the lives of nearly 400 Bangladesh workers, who earned an average of $38 a month to churn out clothing for consumers in America, Canada, Britain and Italy. A fire at another Bangladesh factory last year killed more than 100 workers. In light of the tragedies, a simple question has echoed through the minds of many American consumers: why?
The issue isn’t complicated for Ben Richardson, co-founder of Vancouver-based baby products company Puj. While cost is certainly an issue for his company, which manufactures products in Taiwan, it never outweighs the ethics.
“Of course, there is always a cheaper place to get something made,” Richardson wrote in an email. “But we have chosen to work with very reliable, high quality suppliers that care about the products they produce and care about the workers that work for them.”
He said he personally visits the factories several times a year to inspect product quality and conditions. Puj pays a little more, he said, to ensure a safe work environment and fair pay.
The same can’t be said for many bigger corporations. Several big-name American brands, including Walmart and Walt Disney, manufacture goods in questionable factories like the ones in Bangladesh. Since last week’s tragedy, both companies, along with many others, have decided to keep a closer eye on working conditions or else pull manufacturing from the country all together.
However, pulling out of Bangladesh doesn’t necessarily guarantee the safety of workers in other developing countries, which could see an influx of business from first-world corporations looking for a change of location.
This isn’t to say that all American companies practice unethical manufacturing. In recent years, the trend toward overseas manufacturing has slowed, largely thanks to smaller business that go out of their way to produce quality, socially-conscious products.
Take Maple Landmark, for example, which crafts wooden toys out of their Vermont facilities. The family-run company manufactures only in America, with strict labor and environmental guidelines, based on the belief that keeping workers safe is more important than keeping prices low.
“It is ironic that our society, which works to outlaw exploitative activity within, is perfectly fine purchasing products made in conditions that were deemed improper here generations ago,” the company writes on their website.
Maple Landmark isn’t alone in their thinking. In Pennsylvania, Crazy Aaron Enterprises, maker of Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty, went a step further. Company founder Aaron Muderick decided to hire local workers with disabilities to can his patented putty. The result is rewarding for both Muderick and the workers who, with active hands, stay out of trouble and find meaningful work.
The very idea that employees can actually benefit from their work environment is shocking when set against the backdrop of dangerous overseas factories. But in the American marketplace, where low prices drive sales, it can be difficult to be socially responsible and remain competitive.
“It is not just about the factory and the workers. You have to look at the whole endeavor holistically,” Richardson wrote. “The old saying is as true here in the U.S. as it is in Asia: You usually get what you pay for.”
Unfortunately, the companies that pay less provide harbor for unsafe working conditions that, occasionally, tragically, take hundreds of lives. It can be easy to forget about the factory half a world away, but after each new tragedy we find ourselves again asking why.
But the problem is bigger than any one factory or tragedy. The problem lies in our thinking, in the information we choose to acknowledge and, more importantly, the information we choose not to acknowledge.
After all, this isn’t about Bangladesh manufacturers or even overseas manufacturers, it’s about unsafe and unethical manufacturers.
“The biggest problem for global manufacturing is painting manufacturing, or an entire country, or an entire group of people with the same brush. You have to view and assess each operation individually,” Richardson said. “Not everybody does this.”
Unfortunately, some people do. And when our oversight ends in tragedy, it’s important to look up and take note. It’s important to ask why.