In the aftermath of a fire that claimed the lives of over 100 people in Bangladesh, I begin my annual holiday time shopping caveat letter. I know it’s depressing, but its only once a year and then we can go back to talking about pretty photo shoots and new designs.
A website platform for ethical goods which I regularly frequent, (Ethical Ocean) both for interesting products and interesting news stories in the sector, wrote a piece about this disturbing incident calling out Walmart, Disney, and Sears for producing garments in this factory. Readers commented that in fact we, the people who buy from Walmart and the like, are the ones who have blood on our hands for buying things that are so cheap that they couldn’t possibly have been made in a fair way. One reader posted a comment that I am going to address directly here. She stated that she would continue to shop at Walmart because the prices of fair trade groups were so high and that groups like Ethical Ocean simply needed to lower their prices so that people could buy them. A fair comment, given the economic reality in our country, and one I’ve heard from many people.
I’ve been to a couple of large factories and numerous smaller ones in Cambodia, with very similar conditions to those in this Bangladesh factory. No fire escapes, walkways blocked, piles of flammable fabric everywhere, people using combustible glues with their bare hands. (And that’s just fire safety – never mind about long hours, child labor, chemical exposure, and low wages.) This situation could have happened in any number of Cambodian factories producing any number of American brands. It’s not helpful to name names because honestly, it’s an industry wide problem. Some large brands are making some good progress with factories, but the general problem remains. The brands complain and say it is not their fault if a large certified factory outsources to a small un-audited one (which is what Walmart said) but the fact is many brands are paying such low prices for their goods that factory owners have to squeeze their workers for everything they’ve got and take every shortcut they can, including outsource to a cheaper factory, if necessary.
Do you know what the average profit margin (worldwide) in the garment-manufacturing sector is? Now, I am not talking about fashion, what the brands mark up after they buy from the factories; that margin is much higher. The average margin in manufacturing is 2%. 2%!?! My friend who works in the sector reminded me that there are a lot of issues with corruption and such so it might be high than it is on paper, but still. 2%!! Let that sink in. It is one of the lowest profit margins of any sector. If the factory owners are only making a 2% average profit margin on goods sold to these large brands, of course they are going to take every short-cut possible and pay their workers as little as possible. And if they don’t, the brands will go elsewhere. Plain and simple.
So back to the question at hand, can ethical brands just lower their prices, still pay their workers fairly and have proper safety conditions, and compete with Walmart? I hope you already know this but, NO. I can’t speak for every fair trade company, but I can say that our profit margins at KeoK’jay are lower than many of the large brands (I am talking about on the fashion side now) and most of those profits get re-invested in new training programs and additional improvements to the business that actually benefit our staff. Many other companies similar to us do this. The difference between KeoK’jay and a typical factory is huge, in how we pay our workers, how long they work, they conditions they work in, and the benefits they receive. And all that costs money. I am not saying that to be condescending, because its not that different from what an American worker would be entitled to by law, adjusted to cost of living. I think that if your aunt or sister or mother or friend had died in a factory fire, or if you had seen how your clothes are actually made, you would feel the same way. And most of you probably do just reading this. Our prices are not exorbitant, and neither are those of many fair trade companies. That is just the cost of doing something the fair way. There are ways to make things more efficient without sacrificing ethics, and as people start to demand more ethical products from companies I am sure the companies will find a way to do this. But there is no way to get to prices as low as Walmart without these kinds of things continuing to happen.
Now on to the second part of the question, what if you can’t afford to shop fair trade?
The average American probably believes they can’t afford the prices at places like KeoK’jay and brands on Ethical Ocean. And that may be true. (Believe me, I make a Cambodian wage! So I know what you are saying.) But that is also because we, as Americans have become acclimated to “needing” so much more clothing than we actually need. It is also because cheap clothing wears out quickly; indeed, it is designed to do so. A well-made garment should last you many years and still be stylish through many fashion seasons. Remember when clothing was the most expensive item in the home, because it was all hand made, and it was made well, and it was all made locally? Okay, that was more than 150 years ago, so maybe you wouldn’t remember… People would wear the same thing over and over again, and they would just alter things slightly or fix them, re-use and re-purpose. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution was in full swing (and worker exploitation and child labor was in full swing in the US, something we also like to forget) that things started to change. We can’t go completely back to that in our modern global economy, but the principals still apply. Re-use, repurpose, recycle; trade things with friends, have a clothing swap party. Go DIY and fix your clothes in creative ways. Buy second hand. Do research – there’s a lot of public information out there about which large brands are actually requiring higher manufacturing standards. Save money, and when you need something new, splurge and treat yourself on something you know comes from a good place. And when you’re giving gifts, you don’t just have to give things. Gifts can be acts of service, homemade bread, cards, a vacation or a day out, or other things that you make at home; they just take a bit of forethought. If you have the money to buy all your friends a handbag from KeoK’jay, by all means! But if you don’t, we understand and we just hope that you take a minute to think about what you are giving and what that gift really says, especially during the holiday season.