What’s the True Cost of Our Clothing?

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By Dr. Eric Silverman

In 1911, young women—mainly recent immigrants—literally stitched together the fashions of the United States.   And they did so at great peril. In 1911, a horrific fire engulfed the top floors of the Asch Building in New York City, home of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  Safety was lax.  Exits locked.  The fire-escape was flimsy.  Many of the 146 victims jumped to their death to escape the flames, their bodies piled on the sidewalk below.  The nation was shocked.  The tragedy was wholly unnecessary, the result of nothing other than greed and the willful neglect of safety.

Over the past century, working conditions in American have greatly improved.  But not in Bangladesh, which is now a global center for the manufacture of clothing that we in the developed world so eagerly buy in our shopping malls.  Indeed, almost all major apparel companies now manufacture their garments in the developing world where labor is cheap, thus maximizing profits and satisfying the consumer’s desire for inexpensive attire.

But at what cost?

Only a few days ago, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 300 people.  They were producing clothing for inexpensive companies in the US, such as Wal-Mart, and Europe.  The garments in my closet—and in yours, as well—are all clean.  But they are also bloodied—not by us personally, but by the sheer fact that we as a society have not done enough to ensure that workers elsewhere, making the goods we purchase, receive the same workplace safety (and the same high wages) we demand for ourselves.  Indeed, Wal-Mart shareholders overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to require suppliers to report annually on safety issues at their factories.  Why?  Because it would lead to higher costs for Wal-Mart shoppers.

Should the life of a worker in Bangladesh be cheaper than your clothing?  What is the greater human right—to enjoy inexpensive consumer goods or merely to survive a day of work?  Think about that next time you get dressed.

Dr. Eric Silverman is a cultural anthropologist who teaches in the American Studies and Psychology/Human Development departments at Wheelock College.  He employs a binocular approach to teaching and research that tacks between American culture and other societies, especially in regard to dilemmas of globalization