Cheap Goods. Cheap Lives

Most consumers around the globe pay little attention to what allows them to buy many goods at extraordinarily low costs.  Yet if they considered that they were contributing to conditions that amounted to slave labor or indirectly contributed to tragedies like the recent garment factory fire in Bangladesh, would it really alter their buying habits?


Sorry to put a damper on your holiday buying spirit but here’s something all of us should consider when we use this time of year to spend in excess on stuff more than any other time to satisfy our consuming predispositions.  A fire in a Bangladesh garment factory killed 112 human beings this last weekend who just happened to be employed there.  Some unsettling facts have evolved regarding the deaths and though they may be shocking, they are nothing new to how such sweatshops operate.

  • Exit doors were locked from outside

  • Fire extinguishers didn’t work

  • Managers told workers to remain at their stations after the fire alarm rang.

Not exactly anyone’s ideal employer.  But then again it’s not that these 112 people and the hundreds of others that escaped with their lives had their choice of where they wanted to work and develop a career.   They were dirt poor people and were lucky to be part of a revenue source so they could feed and house their family.  I say lucky in the sense that though they had the misfortune to be born in squalor conditions, unlike some of their neighbors they weren’t begging on the streets or living off of the charity from friends and relatives to survive.

Yet it is these very conditions that allow such sweatshops to flourish and serve as a magnet for big foreign retail giants like, Wal-Mart, Sears and Target to outsource work to make clothing articles and other goods for sale back in the U.S. and European markets, always at astounding marked up prices that create great profits for such retailers & wholesalers.

Products from Wal-mart, along with Sears, Disney Pixar and Sean Combs ENYCE label were found charred in the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory.  Wal-Mart was quick to put out a bulletin that claims they quit doing business with Tarzeen last year when such deficiencies were discovered.

Wal-Mart said the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for Wal-Mart but that a supplier subcontracted work to it “in direct violation of our policies.”

“Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier,” America’s biggest retailer said in a statement Monday. “The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.”  SOURCE

Perhaps this let’s them off of the hook for the time being along with Disney who also released a similar statement late Wednesday.  Sears and the other Western brands however that were doing business with this factory have yet to distance themselves so they clearly need to be held accountable for their association with someone who was in clear violation of safety standards.

I suspect that we will get the usual gratuitous apologies from these large corporations and who will swear that any future contracts with foreign manufacturers will enforce the safety standards that are supposed to be a part of the foreign trade agreements like NAFTA or The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), which Bangladesh is a partner to.  The record shows however that enforcement of such standards is weak and often overlooked by businesses on both sides of the agreements.

Anything that impacts profits will always run up against barriers, even if it means human degradation and loss of life.  We often put on a compassionate face here away from the dank, dark working conditions that pays on average a dollar a day for 8, 10 & 12 hour shifts in foreign sweatshops.

The burned out remains of the garment factory where 112 people were killed from fire.

But does all the blame lie with businesses who work with such people, deliberately or otherwise?   Yes, these things are horrible and someone should do something about it.  However, a day or two after such tragedies occur the force that keeps these facilities operating is right back it, with the memory of such horrible scenes completely erased.  That force is people like you and I who flock to the malls to buy the latest fashions made by other humans under conditions that would be considered nothing less than slave labor by most Westerners.

I don’t fault the principle many companies have used to justify moving their business to the cheaper foreign labor markets.  I don’t like it but businesses are after all here to make a profit in any way they can.  They don’t have a heart and soul, contrary to what some Supreme Court justices here might think.  It is this sole factor that distinguishes humans from entities formed to generate revenue and yet the view by many free-marketers that dispassionate corporations are people ignores what makes us truly human – and THAT only resides within people made of flesh and blood.  Not stone, metal and glass.

Any consideration of the human toll by “corporate people” is often weighed in terms of how it will affect profits and the publicity that can be garnered by appearing to put people above profits.   But there will always be those enterprises that work in the shadows of such noble-appearing ideals who undermine the health and safety of those who are there only to maximize margins that create golden parachutes for Executives and large dividends for investors and stock holders.

This tragedy, like others similar to it, will be marked with platitudes and affirmations, declaring that things need to and will improve.  Scorn will be cast by public officials toward those who have no consideration for their fellow man and harsh sentences may be meted out to a few lower echelon managers.  This will all occur however with a wink and a nod amongst those who profit from such low-cost conditions.  Then in another year or two, if not sooner, a similar tragedy will occur and once again the consuming public will display outward emotions of shock and outrage.

However, as long as this occurs on foreign soil where the people are viewed inferior by Westerners, real concern will never materialize.  Not the type anyway that will force needed changes or alter the buying habits of a people who just can’t seem to get enough of cheaply made goods to fulfill some inane urge to possess that which clutters their homes, only to be tossed out with little sign of wear and tear for the next latest fad or gadget.

Even though I have learned to live with less and hang on to it until it can’t be repaired any further as I have gotten older, I wish I could exclude myself totally from the practice of buying cheap goods from foreign sources.  Sources that could well resemble the conditions that that garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh existed under.  Maybe by publishing this to my blog I can help myself realize that caving to the consuming urges created by marketers who exploit the poor indigent populations in third world nations could conceivably contribute to the loss of life there.   I can try to change my consumption impulses.  I can – and should – at least try.

Not to belittle the serious nature of my topic with this humorous skit by George Carlin, but it perhaps provides the best insight on what seems to be our pathological compulsion to own “stuff”.


9 responses to “Cheap Goods. Cheap Lives

  1. It’s a lot like investing in stocks. Trying to find out if a company is engaged in anti-environmental, anti-labor, anti-social activities around the globe can be a time consuming task. So most of us just don’t bother. It’s the same with comsumer goods.To buy only from those whose hands are clean requires a lot of time. It’s time I think for a Consumer Products sort of magazine which does all this for us so those of us who wish to shop “fair” beyond chocolate and coffee, can do so. Thanks for bringing up a seldom thought of issue for most of us.

    • It’s usually a safe bet that if the product is made in any 3rd world country, it’s likely that conditions and pay are not that far removed from that factory in Dhaka. Google “100% American made” when looking for merchandise. You won’t find everything you need for an reasonable price but some purchases can be made and by doing this you also reduce your carbon foot print.

  2. I consider what I purchase to be a form of voting with my wallet. Won’t do WalMart; would rather pay an extra buck to support a local businessman.

    • That’s a smart way of looking at it Hans. I’m beginning to feel better about paying a bit more for something of real value than the cheaper products that usually sends my money to a foreign port.

  3. Thank you for saying what so many of us are thinking. But, it’s difficult to find much made in the USA. (I can think of Libby’s glass, leather goods and some craft items. I sometimes wonder if our trade imbalance with China could be evened out if online retailers were required to clearly state the origin of the product being sold. I’m very tired of paying more and more for poor quality. And, the misery under which they are produced is just the last straw. It makes me want to purchase as little as possible.

    • Electronics made in America and even Europe are rare. But clothing items and housewares can still be purchased in country. As I mentioned to Sherry, google “100% American made” to make purchases close to home, especially for those things that only seem to have labels from the other side of the world on those mall store shelves.

      Sometimes we only buy things of interests because they are relatively cheap, not because we really need them. If we try to buy what we truly need then we tend to buy less. Perhaps this can be a way of saving money that might be better spent for slightly higher priced wants that are made here or in places we feel much more comfortable about.

      Its our compulsive buying habits which often leads to making purchases that support these kinds of sweatshops, I think.

  4. Great post, Larry. You’ve inspired me to try harder at avoiding purchases from countries with lax regulations. What a tragedy. U.S. corporations have the ability to insist on safety and quality in overseas manufacturing. As long as manufacturing is going to be outsourced, it’s the very least we can do.

  5. i, too, stopped shopping at Wal-Mart and Amazon, but I’m totally guilty of the consumerism mindset. No one should have to work under those conditions, and by purchasing items made there, I’m perpetuating the problem. 😦

    • It’s almost like a drug habit with us I think Cheryl. The fix is not to quit cold turkey then give up when success doesn’t come overnight, but to ween ourselves off of this kind of consumerism gradually. One thing that has helped me over time has been to wait at least 24 hrs. before I make a purchase of a “want” rather than “need” and to start shopping on-line for similar products closer to home that will hopefully be made by workers treated and paid better and will help lower my carbon foot print. It’s a work in progress.

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