Monday, January 13, 2014

The Price Americans Pay for Cheap Clothing

Price (noun) 1. the sum for which anything is bought, sold, or offered for sale;that which must be given, done, or undergone in order to obtain a thing             
--Random House Dictionary

Here's an almost impossible task.

Go into your closet or bureau or laundry room and try to find just one piece of clothing, just one, that's made in the United States of America: a pair of socks, a t-shirt, some jeans, or a suit coat. I tried this exercise and after sorting through button down shirts and fleece pull overs and underwear, I struck out.  Not one item manufactured in the U.S.A. is in my wardrobe. The list of countries my clothing comes from was impressive and would certainly make for an adventurous vacation: China, Mexico, Malaysia, Vietnam, El Salvador, Indonesia and Bangladesh. 

It was that last place of manufacture that caught me short, and made me think about the real price I pay for wearing one my favorite flannel shorts, created by people in a clothing factory in Bangladesh.  I do love that shirt and it cost just $12 at Macy’s. Blue and white checks, soft cotton, stylish in a New England wintry kind of way, and all stitched together by some nameless person, a woman probably, maybe even a boy or girl, in a sprawling textile factory, 7,730 miles from my front door. 

You’re forgiven if you aren’t sure just where Bangladesh is: I wasn’t, but a quick search reports that this nation of 157,000,000 folks, and 57,000 square miles (the size of Michigan) is located just east of India in south Asia. There, in more than 5,000 garment factories, four million Bangladeshis make $20 billion worth of clothes for customers around the world, mostly for European and American shoppers. Bangladesh is second only to China in total clothing output. Workers’ are paid the lowest minimum wage in the world: about $38 a month.

But hey—how about this shirt? Good price. Great price, actually.  A bargain. Yet…for what price?  Is my cut rate, low priced flannel shirt really worth it?

For you see Bangladesh is also the sight of two horrendous industrial accidents in the past two years. In November, 2012, a fire swept through a clothing factory in Tarzeen, killing 112 workers.  Then last April in Rana, an eight story garment factory building collapsed, killing 1,131 people, and injuring 2,500. Cracks in the foundation were discovered just days before the collapse, but workers were ordered back into the structure by their bosses while the government ignored safety issues. It was the deadliest clothing factory accident and accidental building failure in modern human history.

There’s a good chance my shirt was made in Rana or a place just like it. Bangladesh factories supply a who’s who of American iconic brands and stores: Wal-Mart, Sears, Target, Macys, The Gap and Old Navy.  To their credit many European companies have stepped up to create a victims’ compensation fund for the Rana workers and families, continuing to pay salaries to surviving employees and the families of those lost. 

But here’s where the cost of my shirt gets even uglier.  Wal-Mart, Sears and The Children’s Place, companies which all contracted with Rana companies for clothing, have yet to take any responsibility or contribute one penny to the fund, as reported by The New York Times.  Not one dime.  In 2012 Wal-Mart made $15.7 billion, Sears reported revenues of $41 billion and The Children’s Place sold kid’s clothes in almost 1,100 U.S. locations.      

There is an amazing power to capitalism and the flow of goods and services around our oh so connected global community.  When companies like Wal-Mart or Sears find places and people like Bangladesh to lower their bottom lines, increase profits and make items cheaper for their customers, they will do so always.  This “market efficiency” guarantees that you and I will very often get very good stuff cheap.  Sears, “Where America shops” and Wal-Mart, “Save Money. Live Better.” both might argue, like lots of other companies, that they are just doing what the customer demands. 

Yet the tragedy of Bangladesh and its dangerous sweatshops reminds us as human beings that nothing ever comes for free, that there is always some price to pay in the marketplace, beyond dollars and cents. 

Yes I do get my favorite shirt.  But American garment workers, who once numbered in the millions, no longer have jobs. Ninety seven percent of all clothing Americans buy is now made overseas. Most tragically, the folks off shore, so far away, out of sight and out of mind, toil away at clanging machines, six days a week, twelve hours a day, in awful working conditions and why?

All so I can save six bucks on a flannel shirt. Is it really worth the price?  I’m not so sure.



  1. Good article Pastor John. I guess there are several ways to consider addressing the issue. Among them ...We can "buy American", where there are workplace standards. We can support companies that are developing or have developed ethical sourcing in other countries. We can encourage a resurgence of American manufacturing. We can shine the light on governments that allow poor workplace conditions, as you have here. We can ask God to guide us and bless those who are suffering.

  2. usual your comments are thoughtful and wise. Next week's column is on how to buy American.

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