We expect bosses to have the common sense to create a safe working environment for their employees, especially when the sky is falling.
Unfortunately, this is not what happened in the most recent tragedy in Bangladesh. When garment workers—who happen to make clothes for some of the largest brands around the world (Wal-Mart included)—alerted their superiors to crumbling walls, they were told to keep working. A few hours later, more than 400 of them were killed. This comes only a year after Aminul Islam, a union organizer, was brutally murdered for his attempts to organize the textile industry workers.
These stitchers and sewers were making little more than $1 a day and some of the world’s largest brands were using their labor. The response from the global brands is to first deny they knew anything, saying, “This factory was a subcontractor,” then to admit guilt, and say, “We will work with regulators to best oversee our subcontractors.” As the world turns its attention to the next tragedy, the big brands hope consumers will lose interest, and stop sharing stories on Facebook and Twitter about Bangladesh. They are probably right. Most people will forget, and continue to buy cheap clothes, but we are missing the point—and the lesson—if the tragedies don’t force us to change our behavior.
In the book, The Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution, author Edward Humes outlined how Wal-Mart realized that their bottom line could be improved by being more green. For example: One slight change in reducing box size for their toy packages could save several million dollars each year. Since Wal-Mart has such tremendous spending power, they have influence over their suppliers, and they laid down the law. In turn, the manufacturers they were working with had to alter their way of doing things to appease Wal-Mart.
But that same fight for the improvement of their environmental footprint has not yet been translated to their economic footprint. Like many other major apparel companies, they are dropping the ball. A key component of being a better partner to the earth is also treating your workers with respect, which starts with better wages. If a place like Wal-Mart (which is incredibly profitable) starts paying their employees a decent wage, other companies will follow suit. If Wal-Mart calls for this to happen, it will. When workers feel empowered and have the dignity to make their own economic decisions because they have more money in their pockets, we have created more consumers, and also a healthier work environment.
While the debate drags on about more regulation, we should heed lessons from William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s new book, The Upcycle. They make the argument that we need to stop creating systems that need regulation. For example: the new toaster with a warning label that says, “This toaster should be turned on a few times and allowed to heat up fully to burn off the coating on the wires.” This label is broadcasting that this thing exists, but it would be best for the health of humans and planet if it did not. The fundamental premise is that instead of creating something that is already broken or can be harmful, we should be creating systems that function well from the beginning.
Why create working environments that need to be regulated? Since the early '90s, when Nike was chastised for the awful conditions their shoes were made in, they have made serious efforts to regulate and hold their suppliers accountable.
Unfortunately, there are huge flaws in this model for retroactive change. In Savar, Bangladesh, where the collapse happened, there are more than 100,000 factories, and only 18 regulators. While the brands preach accountability and set new standards after disasters, they can instead identify production partners from the beginning, like Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic.
We can apply the same principles of the "upcycle" to building textile manufacturing environments that empower workers. There are places with these practices already in place, like Opportunity Threads in Morganton, NC and 99 Degrees Custom Manufacturing in Lawrence, MA, where workers are not just treated like cogs in the machine, but as active members of society that deserve both fair wages and the opportunity for upward mobility.
Just over 100 years ago in New York City, managers locked doors and prevented garment workers from escaping from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which killed more than 100 people. The result was a healthier working environment in the USA, with more regulations to prevent catastrophe. Maybe now is finally the time to address the root cause of the problem: let’s stop building bad textile manufacturing working environments. We have started to ask where our food comes from, and now we should know how the people making our clothes are treated.
Nathan Rothstein is president of Project Repat, which upcycles excess t-shirts into fashionable clothing accessories while creating fair wage employment opportunities in the U.S.