We all share the shame

Once upon a time, I majored in economics, specifically developmental economics aka “third world economics”. I wanted to change the world; go to work for the United Nations, the IMF or maybe the World Bank. And I did end up working for the UN but there were so many roadblocks -if they weren’t political or economic, they were social. For example, in the highlands of Guatemala where I was working at a weaving cooperative, women were limited to the portable back strap looms while the larger and more efficient floor looms gathered dust. The reason was, social mores dictated that only men could use the floor looms. Since most of the men were working in fincas or coffee plantations during the season and only came back sporadically, the potential for decreasing collective poverty was diminished. It was incredibly frustrating and sad.

But anyway. In developmental economics you learn that when a country is undergoing industrialization, the first industry that is developed is clothing manufacturing. I say industry implying value added as opposed to export of fungible commodities like agricultural products or mining. Did you know that clothing production is the first manufacturing strategy of any developing nation? As such, there is nothing in the way of means testing or infrastructure or even, ways to assess the solidity of infrastructure because it is so broad to include things like available power, water, proximity to transportation -much less political stability and social customs. So forget such lofty goals like building inspectors; the nation is too focused on generating export income. And having no money, how could they afford inspectors? Sure they can be homegrown but with so little experience in industrialization, what kind of meaningful experience can be learned and taught? I think I read somewhere that the whole country of Bangladesh has fewer than 300 inspectors. Elsewhere I read something like 80.

But anyway, since clothing production is the first industry to be developed in an untested nation, they’re lacking a lot of know how. It’s like anything -like you in your businesses- you don’t begin to learn what you need to learn until boundaries are pushed and you get a failure. I liken it to a slow leak in a tire. When the system is inefficient and not pushing the limits, the seepage is minimal; it’s a hassle you deal with. However, once the system is tested by full demand, a tire inflated to full pressure can explode. It’s not so manageable anymore. So that’s what happens. Systems abroad are very inefficient and paradoxically, that can keep people safer if not poorer. Once the operation scales with opportunity, those slow leaks can result in tragedy and death -not so harmless anymore. I’m not saying that catastrophic failure is inevitable so we should just live with it because I don’t think it is conscionable to act as though it were. Accepting inevitability strikes me as being morally and ethically compromised. I don’t know what the solution is. I only know that nations are no different from DEs in that they will choose to make decisions given their means while incurring avoidable risks.
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There are no words to express how pained I am about the most recent disaster in Bangladesh. I’d waited to write about it, hoping to glean some sense of it -but nothing. Everyone is angry and outraged, using the incident to blame their target du jour. Many consumers blame manufacturers for putting profit before people. In the trade, conversation at the water cooler blames consumers for being so cheap that outsourcing has become a necessary evil. Among independent designers, many show a perverse glee in the fallout of larger firms. Those who produce domestically feel vindicated because they’re not to blame. Regardless of where you lie in the spectrum, you share the shame. It affects all of us.

Worst of all, this is never going to change. No matter how diligent manufacturers or inspectors become, no matter how much consumers pay for their products, there will always be negligence and accidents. This is not to say we should pack it in and go home; it’s like anything else. Starving kittens or kids. Abused women, the ill and disenfranchised. All we can do individually, is be proactive and caring enough to take what responsibility that lies within our means to limit tragedy within our reach. I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t outsource (and I’ve been ridiculed for it constantly). How could I? If I’m limited in the ways I can prevent a DE from taking advantage of my domestic contractors or even me, how could I prevent abuses an ocean’s length away?

Then we have the contingent that blames consumers. While I don’t deny there is some truth to that, consumers are not the ones who started the price war to the bottom. Clothing prices have decreased markedly in real terms over the past 30 years. But then, so have cars and other goods -what’s different about apparel? It is because apparel manufacturing is low hanging fruit, the first step on the road to industrialization and decreasing prices amount to a price war pitting X third world countries against each other. And sure, consumers could pay more but it matters where and how they spend and it is often too complex to determine value. By that I mean that there are plenty of big brands that use Bangladesh or Chinese labor who charge quite a lot for their goods using the same inputs as lower cost, lesser known brands; the difference is absorbed by marketing budgets. And glamor. Lots of glossy glamorous magazine editorial pages -to say nothing of increased profit. Truth be told, all this makes me want to cry and to quit my job. But what of that? I love to make things.

Like I opened with, I can’t change these macro mechanisms. All I can do is police my one small corner of the world. I haven’t worked in overseas production and considering the continuing pattern, I can’t see that changing. It is difficult for me to discuss this because it implies so many value judgements that I don’t think are necessarily fair. I know plenty of you use offshore facilities, some of them you really don’t know are any good, you just hope they are and others of you actually travel several times a year and work in the plants that make your stuff so you would know. Mostly.

In my company, I can only control what is going on around me. So I’ll never scale much beyond what I do now. That is okay. All I can really hope to do is to teach more of you how to run your own production. I can only hope that more will decide to do that.

One last word -change starts with you. If you’re an independent designer, you’re not off the hook if you’ve ever shafted a business partner. If you are slow pay or whine so much about the costs of services you’ve contracted for that your provider caves, you’re guilty. It’s bizarre; it seems that the customers with the most resources to pick and choose, are the ones who complain the loudest. If somebody took the hit on your job, don’t pat yourself on the back for doing it domestic. Relative to inflation, clothing prices have decreased by more than half in the last 30 years. Nobody ever said this was easy -your challenge in the face of limited budgets will be to convey value to your customers to exact the value of your goods. We can only do this collectively. Change starts with us.

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