The death toll from the collapse of a Bangladesh clothing factory surpassed 600 on Monday, making it the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry. Officials from Walmart, San Francisco-based Gap Inc. and other retailers met in Germany after the collapse to talk about improving safety measures in Bangladesh. We discuss the social costs of cheap clothing. Are you concerned about where and how your clothes are made?

Interview Highlights

Katie Quan, associate chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center
Ian Maitland, professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management
Dara O'Rourke, associate professor of environmental and labor policy, UC Berkeley; co-founder of GoodGuide
Renee Dudley, reporter covering discount retailers, Bloomberg News

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    A few years back I and some friends read a book by Sara Bongironi titled A Year Without “Made in China”: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy.

    We have all made a serious effort to not buy clothes made in China, India, and Bangladesh. We all dress nicely but our clothes are vintage and from thrift stores, and made in the USA.

    Yet….I encounter so few folks who profess to be ‘green’ living who care about where items are made. If its ‘green’ and not expensive folks will buy it. Yet isn’t thinking about the global ramifications, human rights part of being seriously green?

    • Hewhay

      Yes, there is hypocrisy everywhere if you look for it. Most people don’t apply logical analysis to their daily lives.
      If they did, we wouldn’t have religion…. nor as you say green hypocrites.

      • chrisnfolsom

        And businesses have made it their job to not let you make decisions which might impact their profit margins…

    • thucy

      That’s great. I have the same concerns, and have been sewing some of my newer clothes, e.g. dresses, skirts. Unfortunately, certain clothes are harder to make (bras, pants.) So it would be great to get some factories back – Especially given the environmental toll of shipping stuff from Asia.

    • oginther

      Yes … and no. As long as corporate profits rule it really doesn’t matter where products are made. The people in Bangladesh deserve jobs and decent wages and working conditions just as much as we Americans do.

  • Subcutaneous

    When it comes to outsourcing, some have asked the question: If capitalists want cheap labor, why not build factories in American cities, where poor people are plentiful and desperate? The answer was on display in Bangladesh: It is specifically because corporations want to operate not only cheaply but without any regulations or accountability.

    Hopefully this new disaster will lead to some accountability finally, but that is not likely. (Remember Bhopal?) The problem is our corporatist system, the corruption it has spawned, and the criminality that persists among its executive class.

    There are 3 castes in the corporatist system:
    1. The executive class
    2. The corporate workers: marketing, programmers, chemists, NPR staff etc.
    3. The teeming billions, or what David Rockefeller calls “useless eaters”.

    These correspond to the plantation model:
    1. Plantation owners
    2. Overseers and house staff
    3. Slaves

    I think Mike Daisy was trying to bring this topic up as regards Apple, but Ira Glass made him look like a crook for doing so.

    • Bob Fry

      Because Mike Daisy, while not quite a crook, was certainly misleading. His embellished and often fictional account of Chinese factory conditions dealt a real blow to genuine reformers.

      • thucy

        To be fair, Upton Sinclair in “The Jungle” and Emile Zola in “Germinal” were not 100% accurate, but they found a warmer reception. Criticizing Apple in this town/era can be hazardous to your reputation.

        • oginther

          Yes, and the idea of turning Steve Jobs into a hero of our times. Was he brilliant? Yes. Did he become a multi-billionaire using near slave labor? Yes. No hero to me.

  • thucy

    If anyone is interested in making their own clothes, I recommend Peapod Fabrics on Irving Street in SF. You can buy at a fair price excellent japanese and american fabric. The woman who owns the shop is from Japan and chooses very carefully. Whether you’re sewing for kids or adults, she has quality textiles. Satin Moon on Clement is also great, and has even greater variety. Skip Britex, too expensive.
    If you want a new sewing machine, the new technology is amazing – Babylock is VERY well made in proper Taiwan factories, and you can buy a babylock new for less than $125.

  • Patrick

    I saw a protest yesterday outside the San Francisco Gap and Victoria Secret. People protesting clothing made in Sri Lanka. What about clothing brands associating themselves with Genocidal regimes and not caring about human rights?

    • thucy

      Can you be more specific?

      • Patrick

        Sri Lanka is accused of grave human rights violations worse than that of Syria. But the awareness of that is limited in the US. Sri Lanka, just like Bangladesh, relies heavily on garment exports for foreign exchange. 40% of their export is garments and 50% of that comes to the US. Brands have a lot of leverage in changing the behavior of the government and encourage human rights and rule of law.

        • thucy

          ok, thanks for that

  • chrisnfolsom

    Again, business is taking advantage of situations which they KNOW is not sustainable for a quick buck. You will run out of countries, environments and such. As always, if it is too good to be true it always is.


    As much blame we can put on the retailers for putting intense price pressure, knowing Bangladesh well enough, its the sky high corruption inside the country, which is to be blamed for this tragedy. There is kickback all over up the middleman chain, and we are left with a collapsed building and 600 dead poor people.

    • thucy

      No doubt, but as consumers, we aren’t without leverage, and might be able to ask for some reforms.

      • shroomduke

        As consumers we are unorganized, we do not have interlocking boards of directors as industry does. I think we need solidarity against slave labor and that will only come with organization and Unions.

  • thucy

    Yikes, I’m old enough to remember Gap clothing being made here…

  • Selostaja

    The two extreme sides of this story is sadly held together by our consumer addictions. The ultra wealthy is insulated from the plight of the average lower middle class let alone the thousands of the faceless workers that enable the 2% to live in their financial bubble.

  • Bob Fry

    Meanwhile at home we’ve got a multiple-billion-dollar bridge that is made with shoddy materials and fraudulent procedures. As an engineer I simply don’t believe that CalTrans can state honestly that the new Bay Bridge will be safer than the old one in an earthquake.

    But as to the topic, of course I and many others would pay a few more dollars for proper protections. That’s not limited to clothing, it applies to EVERY product I buy. “Free trade” agreements are bogus when they are between two countries that apply utterly different standards to labor and environment.

    • Churchlady320

      Those shoddy materials are imports. We demanded cheapness so imported steel that breaks under galvanizing. The contractors are private – the bridge is NOT being built by CalTrans but by private cost-driven firms. You get what you pay for,

  • halberst

    Why do we keep referring to the cost of labor as an issue here? Labor is a tiny percentage of the cost. Why not address profits, retail store rents, etc that make up the bulk of the cost? Workers in Bangladesh could double their wages and we wouldn’t even notice the increase.

    • thucy

      This. Is. It. I hope they read your comment!

    • Churchlady320

      Better yet, why make indifferent profit the king? Is it more important societally to pay Paris Hilton unearned income or to pay those who produce goods and services those same profits as owners of the company? Labor has been made to serve capital. Capital can become an instrument serving labor. The latter benefits society and democracy. The former creates global chaos and can only be somewhat restricted.

    • oginther

      Yes. Yes and yes.

  • Rose

    American consumption is out of hand. TVs in every room, computers, and bulging closets. More is more and there is never enough. It seems no matter what the income level, consume, consume. Plastic bottles, electronics, clothes. It is no longer a question of what we need, it has become all about quantity of consumption.

  • Mrs. Eccentric

    There are clothing manufacturers who currently source some of theri manufacturing in the USA. Karen Kane is a designer out of LA who does this, from their website:
    2012: With a long history of manufacturing clothing domestically, Karen Kane is invited to attend the White House and join an exclusive group of business leaders for President Obama’s forum on “Insourcing American Jobs”.”

    Aspiring clothes makers can also find great materials and plenty of reasonably priced classes in the east bay at Stone Mountain and Daughter. There are also a huge number of online resources, from how to videos to fabrics to sewing blogs and pattern reviews. I’ve sewn most of my own clothing for decades – i participate less that way in some seriously exploitative practices, and i get much better quality clothing for my time and money.

    Helps keep the mind sharp, too. 🙂 steph

    • thucy

      Agreed. As someone who hadn’t sewn for decades, I was amazed by the new technology of even low-priced sewing machines. And also amazed by how formerly challenging tasks, like collars and cuffs, were perfectly simplified by videos found on youtube.
      Anyone who can drive a car has the basic skills for clothesmaking. It’s also fun, I have guy friends who are now “into” sewing. It’s very architectural, engineer-y.

  • chrisnfolsom

    “Unfortunately” businesses make money by keeping the same prices and reducing costs – if we knew the “calculus” of how they make their profits – like Walmart does with it’s suppliers – you let you competitors know how to beat you and turn retail on it’s head – which I believe is inevitable in the information age.

  • Sarah Gray

    I recently watched a video showing animal abuse at a fur farm in China. I couldn’t believe how sad it was. I did some research and found that there are many clothing items sold with fur from these fur farms, (here in the USA) things that we don’t think about, like imitation ugg boots, etc.

  • Laurie Prindle

    Third party certification is needed, as with the Fair Trade certification, and/or standards such as with the “organic” certification, and/or grading as the Environmental Working Group does with cosmetics.

  • Selostaja

    What is the distribution of the money made by an item sold for $10? it would be interesting to see a pie chart of who gets what.

    • Churchlady320

      Used to be in manufacturing that the labor percentage was roughly a third. Driving that down was the goal of Robber Barons and today’s equivalent. The cost of the goods is not necessarily better – but the profit interval has grown enormously. Employee ownership of local firms could transform much of that. We need to rethink our priorities – is it the people who produce the goods or absentee capital that put nothing into the firm?

  • Churchlady320

    Within each nation, the single most realistic alternative is to create worker ownership of businesses. This is now a reality in the US with the United Steelworkers-Mondragon Cooperative Corporation agreement signed last year. From 100% worker owned ESOPs to union cooperatives, employees show that they who know HOW things are made can provided sustainable direction to even large corporations. One such endeavor where employees prevail in ownership AND management input is Southwest Airlines. Making capital an instrument to production rather than the goal is essential. The “ownership society” must become real in each nation so that local control creates stability and sustainability.

  • thucy

    The last comment read, by the person who felt quality always suffered when production moved to Asia?
    Let’s be clear that it’s not the fault of Asian workers, who are every bit as good as American workers. It’s the fault of companies cutting every corner up to and including materials and worker safety. At the point they’re outsourcing to Asia, they’ve already demonstrated their contempt for design and materials – so let’s not blame Asian factory girls!

    • oginther

      Yes. Totally agree.

  • Stella

    I missed this and would love to listen – can I download this in podcast format somewhere? Thank you.

    • Amanda Stupi

      Yes, the audio is posted above. We post audio of all of our shows – it’s usually up by noon the day of the broadcast.

  • shroomduke

    Blood Money!

    600 murders, 600 souls crushed under the wheel of capitalism, sacrificed at the alter of gluttony. If you are not on top you are grease under the stones of today’s Great Pyramid Scheme.

    Look at the history of carnage…

    But it seems that nobody is held responsible anymore, a slap on the wrist or a stern talking to, maybe, then we get the argument that people would have no jobs, it’s fallacious argument because the second they can find cheaper labor they will lock the doors and move, not for the survival of the company but for the Gluttonous Profits.

    Many of these people could give away 99% of their money and still be in the top 2%. Is this not hoarding in our time of crisis? If you disagree you may need some perspective? The L-Curve

    Who profited from this slave labor and what is their cut of the Blood Money!

  • oginther

    I am really tired of this false choice presented in mainstream media. Michael Krasny did it a couple of times during this show: Would consumers be prepared to pay more for ethically produced clothing? What about putting pressure directly on corporations to pay people decently, etc., using some of their enormous profits? Walmart has created 3 of the 10 richest Americans. Where is the outrage at that? I wouldn’t mind paying more, actually, but that shouldn’t be necessary. Low wage workers shop at Walmart and their ilk because that is what they can afford. How about international labor standards? Limits on profit? Every time I read about Armani’s yacht or another designer’s multiple homes, I want to scream. How about fewer yachts and better working conditions? Support for international (global) unions? I thought I had found a way to shop “ethically” when I discovered a store in San Francisco called “UNIONMADE.” Turns out “union made” is only a “concept” to the store’s owners and the clothes are made in the same sweat shops as those in other stores. So ironic, because i am sure the owners want to conjure up an image of durable well made and union made clothing, and it is all a sham. Let’s boycott these stores and falsely labeled products until the owners reach into THEIR pockets to pay people decently. Stop the stories about how much boycotts would hurt Bangladesh as if the corporations are doing Bangladeshis some big favor. They are not. They are there BECAUSE of the corruption that allows them to use near slave labor and reap huge profits. Smart consuming is a small part of the answer. How about putting the onus on the profit-takers instead of the minimum wage workers?

  • white elephant

    The downward pressure leading to such abuse of humanity and the tragedy like that in Bangladesh is because the corporations what to increase their profit margins and line their pockets with bonuses and absurd CEO salaries. It is NOT because they are trying to cloth the ‘naked masses in united states’. So this tragic event will be used to increase the prices for consumers in united states (because we say we will pay more), The brand names will white wash and do a little dance with pictures to show for a couple of months until we (the consumers forget all about this). Then they can return to the same old, same old, and we can pay more and feel good about shopping.
    WE have to STOP this madness. WE have taken our eyes off the corporations. They have gone loose and free in all sectors, banking, consumer goods, food,… Expect the same until you get involved. Do you really NEED another dress or suite or do you want it because you are stripped of reasoning by marketing campaiigns? United States of Amnesia ?

  • oginther

    And while we’re at it, why does public radio and KQED take money from some of these same corporations and air their rosy (and misleading) commercials (oh no, public radio doesn’t have commercials)? McDonald’s anyone? Archer Daniels Midland? Walmart? Chevron as protector of the earth? Yes, the hypocrisy is everywhere.

    • thucy

      I’m familiar with SF philanthropy, and so my first thought when the Bangladesh factory disaster hit the news was the link between possible gifts to public radio/tv and the Fishers, who founded The Gap (which is now Gap/Banana Republic/Old Navy, etc).
      Fisher was a Republican, despite the nicey-nice sugar coating on “diversity” of Gap staffing. Involved in some nasty politics locally. But I think the Osher Fdtn. is much more generous to KQED

  • Harkak

    The high cost of low prices. Again the world sees consumerism as a failure.

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