(Photo by Art Cummings/Flickr)

Everyone likes a good deal.

And for that simple reason, most of us have flocked to clothing stores like H&M and Old Navy for the unbelievably cheap and expansive selection they offer.

T-shirts for five bucks; jeans and dresses for under $20. It’s almost like you can’t afford to not buy it.

Clothing is cheaper now than it’s ever been: today average Americans spend less than four percent of their total income on their wardrobes, about half what was spent 50 years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s almost cheaper today to buy a whole new wardrobe than to pay to wash your old one (a bit of an exaggeration, yes, but really not all that far off).

But you know the saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch? Same thing goes with your $5 t-shirt – it comes with some steep hidden costs. There’s no possible way retailers like H&M could be making billions in profits selling clothing at such low prices without there being some catch.

So what are we, the consumers, not seeing?

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The answer became painfully clear last month when an eight-story factory building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 garment workers who were manufacturing clothing for American and European retailers.

Bangladeshi garment workers, the majority of whom are women, receive among the world’s lowest wages – as little as $37 a month. They often work 15-hour shifts in unsafe, sweatshop conditions. Workers rights are few, and labor activism is commonly – and sometimes violently  – squashed. More than a few major factory owners are either government officials or have close political ties, allowing the industry to commonly ignore safety and labor standards.

The collapsed Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers last month. (Wikipedia Commons)
The collapsed Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers last month. (Wikimedia Commons)

Rana Plaza, the building outside of the capital Dhaka that collapsed on April 24, was owned by a local politician who illegally built three additional floors onto the structure and installed heavy textile machinery (he’s currently being detained).  The building housed five different garment factories and more than 3,500 workers. Even after large cracks were found in the walls the day before the disaster, factory supervisors – under pressure to fill orders – ignored warnings to vacate the building, and ordered workers to continue production.

This was the deadliest industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s history, but certainly not the only one in recent memory. Just last November, 112 garment workers were killed in a factory fire near Dhaka, when supervisors ignored fire alarms and prevented workers from leaving their sewing machines. Roughly 500 Bangladeshis have died in similar disasters over the past decade. And even since the Rana Plaza collapse, a factory fire on May 8 killed at least eight more workers.

Why Bangladesh?

Simple: labor and production costs are dirt cheap. Making clothes in Bangladesh costs less than just about anywhere else in the world. Check out the graphic below to see just of just how dramatic the contrast is.

tshirt-graphic_costcomparrisonTake a quick look at the tags on the clothes: chances are good that at least some of them were made in Bangladesh.  Since the 1990s, Bangladesh’s ready made garment industry has exploded: it now generates close to $20 billion a year in exports.  More than 25% of these garments go to stores in the U.S. and close to 60% are shipped to to Europe, according to a report by the International Labor Right Forum (ILRF) Major retailers that look to Bangladesh for much of their clothing manufacturing include H&M, The Gap, Walmart, Benetton, J.C. Penney and Zara.

Bangladesh’s textile factories have popped up like gangbusters in the last decade. There are now about 5,000 of them, employing nearly four million people, according to the ILRF. It’s become one of the largest clothing exporters in the world. In fact, it’s second only to China, which has actually lost a good deal of textile manufacturing contracts because it’s no longer the cheapest place to do business.

The Dark Side of Fast Fashion

It used to be that most clothing stores had seasonal fashion lines that would remain on the shelves for at least few months. But go into an H&M store today and then go back again a week or two later, and you’ll likely find a completely changed inventory. This is the concept behind fast fashion, pioneered over the last 15 years by European brands like H&M and Zana, and to a lesser extent, The Gap, Benetton, Urban Outfitters and Forever 21. The idea is to capture the latest design trends and whisk them from the catwalk to the store, quickly producing trendy but generally low quality garments in the fastest, most cost-effective manner possible.

This business formula has proven remarkably successful, with many of the big brands posting record profits (the founders of H&M and Zana are both among the richest people on the planet). And they’ve done it by providing a nearly unlimited selection of super cheap, fashionable clothing that consumers reliably devour.

In a recent interview with NPR, Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Price of Fast Fashion, explained that stores like H&M produce hundreds of millions of garments per year. “They put a small markup on the clothes and earn their profit out of selling an ocean of clothing,” she says. H&M has about 2,800 stores in 48 markets and it’s growing fast, especially in China and the United States.

But if these companies are making billions and consumers are getting great deals, the cost has to be absorbed somewhere. And that’s where developing countries like Bangladesh come into the picture. Because there’s no way the fast fashion model could exist without an army of extremely low-paid workers to quickly turn massive orders around.

Digital First Media
Digital First Media

Unfortunately, the insatiable demand of the fashion model has also encouraged harsh working conditions: garment workers toil around the clock to quickly meet ever changing orders, while factory owners pay paltry wages and often avoid necessary safety improvements in order to keep production costs low. If conditions were improved and workers paid even a few cents per hour more, production costs would rise, and the retailers would likely look to cheaper suppliers.

See a NY Times slideshow on Bangladeshi factory workers

This, of course, is not unique to the fashion industry. A slew of other Western industries – food included – also rely on global supply chains. One prime example is electronics companies, which depend heavily on cheap production lines in developing countries. The issue came to light last year after worker abuses were reported at a Chinese factory that made products for Apple.

So who’s to blame?

There’s no simple answer. It’s easy to blame the big clothing companies, many of whom reap enormous profits, fully aware of the decrepit conditions where their products are made.  After the huge factory fire last November, a number of major clothing brands and retailers rejected a union-sponsored proposal to improve safety throughout Bangladesh’s garment industry, the Associated Press reported. Instead, companies expanded a patchwork system of private audits and training, which labor groups allege do little and lack any real enforcement mechanism.

The textile factories are almost all locally owned and managed, allowing Western retailers to maintain a distance from them and turn a blind eye to factory floor conditions.   And blame, of course, can also be directed at the factory owners and Bangladeshi government officials who knowingly exploit and endanger the workforce.

In the wake of this recent tragedy, a number of European designers including H&M, Zana and Benetton, signed a new legally binding agreement to pay for major safety improvements. But very few American brands have gotten on board: as of May 17, only two companies – PVH, parent to Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch signed.  The Gap, Walmart, Sears and Target are among the major American clothing retailers that have refused to sign despite relying heavily on Bangledeshi suppliers. Some of these companies counter that they have their own safety improvement measures in place, while others, like Disney, have announced that they will leave Bangladesh altogether.

Western companies are often quick to argue that although working conditions in Bangladesh are far from ideal, they’re a whole lot better than they would be if the garment industry wasn’t there at all. Western demand has created jobs and training for millions of people, particularly women, offering a greater degree of independence and economic security. Since the arrival of textile manufacturing in the late 1970s, Bangladesh’s poverty rate has fallen from about 70 percent to less than 40 percent. And even though about half the country still lives on less than a dollar a day, income has risen markedly for large swaths of the population. Health and education have improved incrementally as well.

What role do you play?

And then there’s us – the consumers. Because the reality is that none of this would be happening if the demand wasn’t there to fuel it. Consumers in Western nations now buy more clothes than ever before, according to Cline, particularly cheap clothes that aren’t  made to last.  Factory conditions would likely improve if consumers were to demand it, especially if we were willing to pay more for our clothes and absorb some of the costs .

But doing so is a lot easier said than done. It’s one thing to be horrified by Bangladesh’s recent tragedy and to hope conditions improve. It’s quite another thing, though. to voluntarily pay more for your clothes at the register. With the exception of the worst tragedies that grab our attention, most of the inequities in this system are out of sight, out mind. It’s really easy to just pretend they don’t exist.

Which begs the question: how much more would you be willing to pay to know your clothes were being produced in an ethical manner?

NPR’s Planet Money show is documenting how t-shirts around the world are made.

Resources to further explore this issue

Lesson plan suggestions for using this issue in the classroom

International labor rights advocacy groups

Sites that help track product origins in the global supply chain

Corporate responsibility statements from some major clothing retailers

  • Chris_4

    Do we still feel good about keeping that extra cash in our pockets because the price of clothes are cheaper now? Even knowing now that those people who made that shirt you’re wearing were paid the amount of money you make in any where between two and four hours, in a months worth of work with fifteen hour shifts. Even if their was an increased price clothing, but the workers still weren’t paid more, at least we would know they are working in a safer place. So is saving those extra few bucks really worth it?

    • Alex_2

      @chris_4:disqus Even if we don’t know it, we are all selfish. Selfish to a degree that we would rather spend a few less dollars on a shirt made in a sweat shop so we would have enough money to get the “tall” Mocha frappe with 1/2 scoop of chocolate chips and whip, as opposed to the average size. Think of that, is it worth hundreds of people dying for you to enjoy your coffee? So no, those few extra bucks are not really worth it. No dollar is worth loosing life over. Is ignorance bliss? Or is blindness just a side effect of ignorance? The path we have chosen is to ignore the elephant in the room, to sweep it under the carpet. To turn a blind eye to the problem as if to mask it, like it would make us feel less guilty about buying it because “I didn’t know that happens”. The thing to do is not to ignore it, to promote the problem and show Americans its okay to spend a few extra bucks in order to solidify the safety of these poor workers.

  • Alex_2

    With an increase in just about every other cost, it feels good to know theres always something to rely on thats cheap. Clothing is, for a lot of people, a therapy. Americans are always sympathetic to these huge disasters, but we never really do too much about it. Take “Kony 2012” for example. All these things stress us out. America is the most stressed nation out there, so we look for things to cure our stress. A lot of the time, shopping is one way to do it. But Americans are naive. We always see these disasters take place that it almost looses it importance, much like telling someone the same exact thing everyday. The meaning is lost. So the result of this, is the continuation of buying the clothing. We are aware of the problem, but too selfish to give up the convenience of cheap clothing.

    • Maggie_4

      I agree with you. While we, as Americans, can be told a million times something bad is happening and agree it is horrible we never tend to do anything about it. I come from a family where we try to always buy American made but even I am guilty of owning some cheap tees and pants… It’s hard not to buy them when the offer is there, no matter how morally wrong that might be. Like the article said, out of sight, out of mind.

  • Maggie_4

    It’s horrible what has come to this country, and the world. We are willing to sacrifice human life for clothes. In one sense, you want to come out of the developing countries, buy better clothes that were made by Americans to help our own countries. But at the same time, we are helping these countries because we are giving them a chance to make money and a living for themselves. I think the real solution is to improve working conditions but allow the companies to survive. Paying more for clothes would be easy if there wasn’t an option to pay less, and therefore I think we would be able to fix the problem.


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email: mgreen@kqed.org; Twitter: @KQEDlowdown

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