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Shoppers’ habits not changed by garment plant fire
Question of the Day
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 behavior. “Our hearts are generally are in the right places. It’s the question of making sure we have the knowledge and pocketbook to follow.”
And it’s not just clothing. It is hard to tell where televisions or laptop components are made.
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, Wal-Mart 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 authorization.
In recent years, consumers have become much more aware about the food they eat, and where it comes from.
Supermarkets are full of eggs laid by free-range chickens, organically-grown apples and beef from grass-fed, hormone-free cows. Some upscale restaurants now name the farm that provided them with pork chops. And customers pay a premium for these foods.
The difference: They perceive a direct benefit, since the food is going into their bodies.
Ethical choices when buying clothing — or the latest version of Apple’s iPhone — 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. “If they don’t want to buy from them, then that means that factory will go out of business.”
Arguments have been made that producing items with cheap labor isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Factories in the Third World can provide jobs with wages well above a region’s average. They can help lift families out of severe poverty. The catch is that there are fewer safeguards to protect workers from being exploited from unscrupulous employers.
At the Bangladesh factory, locked exits prevented many workers from escaping after fire broke out.
By Matt Kibbe
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