On November 25th, one month before Christmas this year, a fire broke out in a Bangladesh garment factory, killing 112 people inside.
The factory, located in the capital city of Dhaka, manufactured clothing for leading European and American retailers—the same stores that, presumably, were beginning to get hit with the early holiday rush of eager Christmas shoppers.
The ensuing investigation of the fire revealed harsh working conditions and corrupt management that inevitably set the scene for the tragedy that day—an overcrowded factory riddled with fire hazards that should not have been in operation.
The incident was just the latest in a long line of tragedies in factories in Bangladesh and other nations that provide the cheap foreign labor many companies have come to depend on to keep costs low for their customers back home.
This holiday season, as we spread love to friends and family, perhaps it is time to reconsider if the prices we are paying for the foreign-made gifts under our tree really reflect their true costs; perhaps it is time for us to be honest about who is actually paying the price for our holiday this year and whether this honors the Christmas spirit.
As consumers, we have more power than we know. The goods we buy support the business practices of the companies we buy from. By being conscious of where we spend our dollars, we can help prevent future incidents like the Dhaka fire.
In the United States today, experts estimate that around 60 percent of everything we buy is made overseas, compared to 1960 when foreign goods made up only eight percent of Americans’ purchases.
In many respects, this new global marketplace offers fantastic opportunities for inter-cultural exchanges of expertise and natural resources. It also provides job opportunities in economically depressed areas.
Unfortunately, globalization has more often allowed corporations to take advantage of cheap labor and the lax environmental and safety regulations in the countries where their factories are located.
It’s up to us to ensure that this does not continue.
Over the past several years, many American companies have begun to shift away from production overseas, focusing instead on drawing on the expertise here in the United States by bringing business back home.
In a poll of 259 U.S. manufacturers taken last year, 40 percent said they had shifted at least a portion of production previously done abroad back to the United States. These same manufacturers also estimated they would see increased profits despite—or perhaps because of—the change.
While producing abroad has some financial upside, it also yields added costs. There are the obvious increased costs of shipping, warehousing and inventory management. It is harder to ensure the quality of products and longer lead times make it harder to adjust production to consumer demand, putting added pressure on companies to accurately predict the market before placing orders.
Then there are the externalities such as the environmental and human costs.
For a growing number of consumers concerned with the U.S. economy and with the exploitation that has transpired abroad, the advantages to producing stateside are obvious. Companies that bring production back to the United States are bringing jobs back with them. And once these workers are hired, U.S. regulations—though they may seem costly and arduous—help keep American workers safe.
So this Christmas, help reverse the unfortunate legacy of exploitation and corruption that has become aligned with many of our nation’s corporate powerhouses by buying your clothes from companies like American Apparel or The Vermont Flannel Company.
This year, buy Made in America gifts from companies like SmartWool and Green Guru of Colorado, Two Sisters Jewelry of Maryland, See’s Candy of California or any of the other countless companies committed to producing in the United States.
Let’s start today.
Co-authored with Judy Amabile, President, of Polar Bottle/Product Artchitects Inc.
Ed: Bryonie Wise
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