12:00 AM, December 01, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 01, 2012

Western shoppers' habits not changed

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Ap, New York

Looking for work and dreaming of a better future, this family of three came from Rangpur a few days before the Tazreen Fashions fire in Ashulia. They started living in a shanty near the factory. After the November 24 blaze had killed 111 workers, the couple thought they better leave Dhaka. The photo was taken as Mozammel and Morjina along with their kid were leaving Ashulia on Wednesday. Photo: Anisur Rahman

Before purchasing a shirt, shoppers will run their hands over the fabric, look at the price tag and wonder how it will hold up in the washing machine. Some might even ask if it makes them look fat.
The one detail, however, that is rarely considered: What are the conditions like for the workers making the shirt?
A horrific fire that raced through a Bangladesh garment factory last week, killing over 100 workers, has put the spotlight -- at least temporarily -- back on those workers and their sometimes treacherous work environment.
The factory, owned by Tazreen Fashions Ltd, made clothing for several retailers around the globe including Walmart, Sears and The Walt Disney Co. All three companies have distanced themselves from responsibility for the incident, saying they didn't know that their subcontractors were using the factory.
Holiday shoppers have also maintained their distance from the tragedy.
"Truthfully, I hadn't even thought about it," said Megan Miller of Philadelphia as she walked out of the Disney Store in Times Square. "I had Christmas on my mind and getting my kids something from New York."
Shoppers from Cincinnati to Paris to Singapore all said the same thing: They were aware of the fatal factory fire, but they weren't thinking about it while browsing stores in the days since. Brand name, fit and -- above all -- prices were on their minds.
"Either our pockets get lighter or we have to live with more blood on our hands," said Amy Hong, a college student who was at a store in Singapore. "I try not to think about it."
Experts who survey shoppers say the out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude is nothing new.
"When you talk to them about their biggest concerns, where something is made, or the abuses in some country, almost never show up," said C Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, which interviews 10,000 to 15,000 consumers a week, mostly on behalf of retailers. "The numbers are so small, I quit asking the question."
Convenience is much more important to shoppers.
Take Tammy Johnson who was at a Walmart in Bloomington, Minnesota this week. She lives nearby and appreciates that the store has a large grocery section in addition to clothing and other goods.
"It's easier and it's cheaper," she said of her decision to shop there. "I hate that, but it is true."
Even those who want to make socially responsible purchases a priority have little information available to work with.
There's no widespread system in place to say where all the materials in a shirt come from let alone whether it was made in a sweatshop or not.
A label saying "Made in USA of imported fabrics" doesn't provide as much information to shoppers as they might think. Maybe tailors assembled it under good working conditions, but what about the people who wove the fabrics? Another label saying that a shirt is made from 100 percent organic cotton fails to say anything about the conditions of the factory in which it was made.
"What do they know at the point of sale about where it comes from, other than the tag?" said Paco Underhill, founder of Envirosell, which studies consumer behaviour. "Our hearts are generally are in the right places. It's the question of making sure we have the knowledge and pocketbook to follow."
Companies selling products say they even struggle to tell. Work is often given to subcontractors who themselves use subcontractors. While many major companies stipulate ethics and standards that their subcontractors must follow, policing them is a costly, time-consuming process that sounds easier than it is.
In the case of the Bangladesh factory, Walmart said it had received a safety audit showing the factory was "high-risk" and had decided months before the blaze to stop doing business with Tazreen. But it said a supplier had continued to use Tazreen without authorisation.
In recent years, consumers have become much more aware about the food they eat, and where it comes from.
The difference: They perceive a direct benefit, since the food is going into their bodies.
Ethical choices when buying clothing are much more blurred.
Jean MacLeod, who was shopping at a Walmart on the south side of Indianapolis, is willing to pay more for goods if they are made in an ethically responsible manner and does it all the time when she buys food.
Walmart wants the best prices for its customers, she said, but the company also has power as a buyer to make sure factories have decent working conditions.
"They should be able to say, `Look it, we don't want to buy from you unless you do things a little more our way,'" MacLeod said.
Change can only come after persistent public pressure.

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