Faded Glory

A couple of Saturdays ago, as Americans visited with family, watched football, shopped for bargains, and picked at the remains of our Thanksgiving feasts, a fire broke out in an apparel factory in Bangladesh.

Witnesses said the factory workers, mostly women, tried to escape as smoke and flames engulfed the plant, but the too-narrow exits trapped them. Some workers jumped from windows; others stayed put. Although fire extinguishers were available, workers had never been trained to use them. In all, 112 workers died. "Working conditions at Bangladeshi factories are notoriously poor," Reuters reported, "with little enforcement of safety laws, overcrowding and locked fire doors are common."

Located just outside Bangladesh's capital, this factory--called Tazreen Fashions-- supplied clothing for over a dozen retailers, including Wal-Mart and Sears. According to a recent story in the Los Angeles Times, both Wal-Mart and Sears confirmed they had terminated their relationships with this particular factory prior to the disaster. A May, 2011, audit classified the facility "high risk" due to safety violations. Unbeknownst to the retailers, their suppliers chose to subcontract out work to the banned factory anyway.

"Industry experts say the tragedy highlights the complexity of the global supply chain, where retailers use vast networks of vendors and manufacturers to churn out their products," the Times explained. "Analysts say it can be extremely difficult to keep tabs on every part of the process."

Human rights groups have long criticized the unsafe, unsanitary working conditions in Bangladesh's 5,000 factories. Bangladesh is the world's second-largest exporter of ready-made clothing (behind China). Apparel manufacturing accounts for 80% of this third world country's exports. It exported $19 billion in clothing last year. Bangladeshi factory workers earn $37 a month. Yes, you read that right: $37 a month.

Anyone else feel nauseous?

Sifting through the ashes, Bangladeshi authorities found scorched clothing with Wal-Mart's "Faded Glory" label sewn inside them. A quick search for Faded Glory on walmart.com produced 624 choices. And talk about affordable. Faded Glory Women's Basic Boot-Cut Jeans cost $13.50. I could use a new sweater or two. A search for "Faded Glory Women's Sweaters" produced a whopping 389 styles from which to choose, ranging from just $12.94 to $16 each.

Hard to beat that. And let's be honest: Wal-Mart, the Big Box store everyone loves to hate, fills a need, not just for inexpensive apparel but inexpensive everything. What would low income families living on a shoestring do without this mega-bargains store? What would middle income families trying to sock away money for kids' college funds or orthodontia or a vacation now and then do without it? When you think about it, aren't we all mindful of our budgets, no matter what our individual income level? Don’t we all want / need our dollars stretched as far as humanly possible? Why pay more if you don't have to?

During the last week of October, the New York Times reports, "a supplier for Wal-Mart placed an order with garment maker Simco Bangladesh Ltd to produce 300,000 girls' shorts for shipment in early December." A week earlier, on October 24, Bangladeshis celebrated holy day of Eid al-Adha. Following the celebration, 380 workers failed to return to the Simco factory. Simco found itself in urgent need of workers. It consequently subcontracted out the work to the Tuba Group. Tuba, in turn (and without permission) contracted with one of its own units, Tazreen Fashions. Yes, the same factory deemed unsafe in May, 2011. Sigh. End of story.

Look, I know. Working conditions have been far from perfect here in the good ol' USA. Slavery. Sweatshops. Tragedy upon tragedy. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York, killing 146 garment workers. The disaster led to mandated safety regulations and "helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers." So Wikipedia tells me, and in-depth archives (including haunting photos and personal accounts of the fire) on Cornell University's website support that information. We have a dismal past. But we've learned, right?

In theory, yes. But in reality have American manufacturers great and small--eying wider profit margins, huge tax benefits, freedom from environmental and union regulations--simply packed up their belongings and set up shop somewhere else? Have America's corporations lost sight of the values we supposedly hold dear?

And for our part as consumers: what's the true cost of those cheap jeans?

Faded Glory, indeed.