A phone call from my son on Saturday afternoon is not unusual. What made last Saturday’s call unusual was where it came from. He was at Wal-Mart.
“What are YOU doing at Wal-Mart? I asked incredulously. “Haven’t you read about the building collapse in Bangladesh? Don’t you care that 1000 people died in an unsafe factory just so that American kids can go to school every Monday with brand new sequined T Shirts from Wal-Mart”?
The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh is an American problem. It is not an American government problem. It is an American consumer problem.
For the last 20 years, the illusion of an American middle class life-style has been maintained by offering consumers cheap, imported goods on relatively easy credit terms. Wal-Mart led in development of this illusion but they are by no means alone.
This is the second Bangladeshi tragedy in 6 months that involves factories contracted to make clothes for Wal-Mart. Last November, 150 garment workers burned to death when they could not escape a raging fire burning through a substandard building. US news media, at the time, reported the retailer worried the fire would have an impact on US store inventories during the Christmas shopping season.
Have we become, in fact, the “ugly American” of the 1950s novel? Do we, the American people, have such a sense of entitlement? Can we be so oblivious to labor exploitation and human suffering?
There is growing evidence that it’s not indifference that has driven US consumer behavior but a lack of public awareness. The unnecessary deaths of 800 people leave the American consumer stripped of any illusions. Workers in Bangladesh, Vietnam and other developing nations are being exploited to satisfy our cheap and accessible fashion fetish.
In my America, this is not a problem our government should fix with tariffs, as some have argued. This is a problem you and I, everyday Americans can fix it! And we can fix it in a quintessential American way – with our wallets and our computers and smart phones.
On Saturday, I checked my closet. Sure enough, the incredible STEAL, my bargain of the season, a $9.95 pair of black floral print slacks from H and M had a small tag sewn into one of the darts. The single word printed on the tag = Bangladesh. I asked myself: Can I, in good conscience, wear the slacks? The answer is probably yes, I can’t un-ring that sale.
But I sent an e-mail to H and M to explain why I won’t be shopping in their stores, again, until they sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Program. The Program calls for the establishment of a factory safety program – independent of the retailer, Bangladeshi trade unions and, of course, the factories.
H and M, Nike, and Wal-Mart have issued statements of support for the establishment of the Program. It’s happening because American consumers are walking into their stores, sending e-mails, texts and tweets saying – no more.
The Bangladesh Worker Rights Consortium estimates that it will cost $600,000 per factory to bring garment factories up to US and European safety standards. If the program were stretched over 5 years, they claim, the cost would be as little as 10 cents per garment wholesale. Retailers could pass the cost on to consumers for a mere 25 cents per garment.
American consumers surveyed by a major US retailer have indicated they’d be willing to pay $1.00 more per garment if that guaranteed safe working conditions, adequate wages, and the elimination of child labor in the developing world. We’ve got to turn that sentiment into immediate action.
As consumers, we cannot allow major retailers to hope the crisis passes and business-as-usual prevails. By purchase decision, by talking to store management, by writing, by texting, by Facebooking, by Tweeting – US consumers must make it emphatically clear to major retailers that we expect them to do more, faster.
In time for the 2013 Christmas season American consumers should expect major retailers to have the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Certificate garment tags on their merchandise. Without the certificate, we won’t buy the garment!
That’s the American consumer living American values. Nothing could send a stronger signal to the world that the American people embrace their role as the conscience of the global village.
That’s my America!
Photo Credit: Andrew Biraj/Reuters
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