a peek inside the fishbowl

02 May, 2013

The tragedy of fast fashion

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Oh! Things!|Yaktivism

According to CTV news, as of this morning there are 430 confirmed dead and 149 reported people missing in what has become the worst disaster for Bangladesh’s $20 billion-a-year garment industry.

My Live Below the Line update will come later tonight as usual, but I wanted to think out loud about what’s been happening in Bangladesh because it’s on my mind right now. What’s more, the girls and I recently attended National We Day where we spent nearly 6 hours listening to how individual people can make big changes by taking action. So yes, my brain is very full of this stuff right now.

The other day I was contacted by a reporter and asked to comment about the fact that Joe Fresh was one of the brands that had clothing manufactured in the building that collapsed in Bangladesh recently. He knew I was at the opening of the new Ottawa store (ETA: here’s the article). He remarked about how few people were talking about it online. It’s been in the news – certainly – but overall, considering the scale of this tragedy, there hasn’t been much of an outrage expressed in tweets, petitions, or blog posts.

PhD in Parenting has written a very thoughtful and informed response and I urge you all to read it. Annie has been to Bangladesh and has seen how people live there.

Myself: I am shocked and dismayed that one of my favourite brands is involved. If this is the price of fast and cheap fashion I don’t want to pay it. Imagine the anguish all of those families are feeling right now, all those children without parents.

There are just so many questions swirling around my head today, and my brain just isn’t working like it should be (I blame my lack of coffee this week):

  • Did Joe Fresh et al. know about the building in poor working conditions? If they did, they have blood on their hands. If they didn’t, well, why didn’t they have a better overview of their supply chain? Is there any excuse for not knowing?
  • Are factory working conditions ultimately the responsibility of the city and country, or the brand who is having garments made there?
  • Some people are wagging their fingers saying, well, what do you expect from an $8 t-shirt? But just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it’s been made in a sweat shop. There are many reasons why an article of clothing can be inexpensive. The fact that it has a “Made in Bangladesh” label doesn’t mean it was made in a factory like the ones in the news recently.

The girls and I have had a chat about it and have decided that for now, we can’t support a brand that allows people to work in these kind of appalling conditions. But it’s hard. We love Joe Fresh and want to shop there. And what about all those other places we shop? How do we know that people did not suffer in the production of the clothes we put on our backs?

My answer can only be this: to shop mindfully, and focus on stores that adhere to international labor and human rights standards. I will choose quality over quantity.

So is it possible to dress oneself in well-made, made-in-Canada clothing when almost everything in the stores is an import? What are the options for those of us who are taking our blinders off, and who want to shop a little bit better? And how do we know if a garment has been made in the same kind of place we read about in Bangladesh?

Yesterday I went went shopping in a fit of anger for my summer wardrobe. My first destination: Chlorophylle in Westboro. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be much on their website about their commitment to Canadian products. I noticed yesterday that many of their tags promised Canadian design, but many items were still made overseas. After a bit of looking I did find this casual dress for everyday wear. It’s made in Canada, and it cost $80. I love it, and it will last me a long time, I just know it.

Dress 1 - From Chlorophylle

From there I moved on to Mountain Equipment Co-op. I figured I probably wouldn’t find very much that was Canadian made (that number is getting smaller every year as manufacturing moves off-shore), but they’re a company that has taken a stand on fair labour practices. You can read about it right here. I thought I could find a good option at MEC even though it wasn’t going to be made in Canada.

I spotted this dress by Patagonia while I was there. It was $69.

Dress 3 - A Patagonia dress from MEC

That’s my daughter’s bedroom by the way. Window markers for the win! :)

I was shopping for Canadian made only, and this dress was made in Sri Lanka. I was going to put it back on the shelf (I’m a woman on a mission!) but then I noticed the tag. Patagonia is a company with a good reputation. You can read more about their commitment to fair labour practices and safe working conditions right here. Patagonia works with an outside auditor and an in-house corporate responsibility specialist to establish working conditions and pay for every person who sews their garments. A win! So I bought it, even though it was made off-shore.

From there I moved on to Green Tree Eco Fashion where I saw this dress by Indigenous. It’s gorgeous, super soft and perfect for summer. I didn’t buy it because I am not QUITE the right body shape for this lovely vision.

Dress 2 - From Green Tree

I didn’t catch the price, but the company has a pretty cool story which you can read about here. The clothes are designed in the U.S and the clothing is made by women in South America who are in need of work. It’s a fair trade dress! (Goes with my fair trade coffee!)

So I have bought two new dresses for summer so far and I will buy a third within the next couple of weeks. I’m going to check out Le Chateau (I’ve bought Canadian made garments there before), Workshop Boutique (where I will likely find something that is Canadian made), and Fishbowl patron terra20. My goal is to buy three or four new dresses and have them in rotation, seven days a week, along with last year’s stuff which I’ll wear until I can wear them no more.

Sidebar: who decided that it’s considered “wrong” to wear the same thing two days in a row? As long as everything is clean it shouldn’t be an issue, right? Let’s talk about this!

So this is my new shopping strategy, and it’s one I can feel good about. I am spending a tiny bit more, on fewer things, that I can wear for a longer period of time. I won’t be shopping at Joe Fresh until they can prove (and this proof is backed up by third parties) that they’ve made real changes. I want them to make sure that working conditions for Bangladeshi’s are safe. And labelling would go a long way to restoring my confidence too.

In her blog post, Annie pointed out that boycotting these stores is only hurting the poorest of the poor.

If you boycott companies that produce goods in Bangladesh, you don’t create better working conditions in Bangladesh, you put people out of a job. Instead of a dangerous job and uncertain future they have no job and no future.”

And that is certainly one way of looking at it, but there are companies that ARE doing it right in Bangladesh and in other developing countries. We need to seek those out, and vote with our dollars.

The people in Bangladesh – and many other developing countries – desperately need jobs. Garment factory jobs – as awful as they are – have actually made some positive changes. BUT we still need to pressure garment manufacturers to ensure the jobs there are decent jobs.

Annie linked to an article by Stephanie Nolan that is worth reading. She writes:

“Bangladesh’s garment zone can seem like a hellhole, and no one who shops at Joe Fresh would want Mini Akhtan’s job for five minutes. But you can call Joe Fresh today and demand that they audit their producers for safety and for working conditions. You can demand to know what their producers’ relations are with Bangladesh’s struggling labour unions. You can tell Joe Fresh that if they are going after your business, they need to have a direct relationship with a supplier – not outsource to a third party so they get plausible deniability. Demand to see those safety audits, every quarter, posted on their website, right beside the sale on $6 shorts”

Sounds like a plan to me. The health and welfare of people MUST be more important than my having a pretty summer dress. End of story.

Want some additional reading?

Edited to add: Buying four dresses is one thing, but where does shopping for kids fall into this? When they grow out of their clothing at breakneck speeds and $8 T-shirts is all you can afford? Gah. It’s such a tough issue. Here’s what I’m thinking: If you CAN, vote with your dollar by shopping elsewhere, and demand better of stores like Joe Fresh and the like and promise to return there once they change their stripes. If you can’t vote with your dollar, demand better anyway.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


20 Responses to "The tragedy of fast fashion"

1 | JaDa

May 2nd, 2013 at 11:45 am

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Very interesting article. I am guilty of having Joe Fresh items jump into my cart on numerous occasions while getting groceries! Going forward I will commit to doing a little more research into where my shopping $$ go before making a purchase. We are the change!

2 | Kaitlin

May 2nd, 2013 at 11:59 am

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With kids, I have to wonder: Why buy new? In all seriousness, they’re just going to outgrow it. Wouldn’t it be easier, cheaper, and more sustainable to arrange for clothing swaps, shopping trips to Value Village or buying at consignment? Some of my best closet finds have come second-hand…

3 | andrea tomkins

May 2nd, 2013 at 12:03 pm

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Kaitlin, I see your point but shopping that way takes a lot more time and effort. Joe Fresh offers a serious convenience factor because the clothing is available at Loblaws. Speaking of which:

http://business.financialpost.com/2013/04/29/loblaw-to-compensate-bangladesh-victims-as-weston-says-collapse-was-inevitable/

4 | Stacey K

May 2nd, 2013 at 12:05 pm

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We mostly shop consignment for the kids, and accept all the hand-me-downs that are offered to us. My kids are younger (3-10), but it is a good option. Less waste in the landfill, more of my money in my local economy because we choose small, independent consignment stores more often than Value Village.

It is tough for socks and underwear though. I can’t find anywhere other than Superstore or Walmart to purchase little girl underwear.

5 | Pamela

May 2nd, 2013 at 12:14 pm

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Let me know what you find at terra20. :)

Hope you don’t mind me sharing, but here are a few blog posts we’ve done recently about made in Canada fashion (which also happens to be eco-friendly!)

http://www.terra20.com/style-beauty/7524/look-and-feel-great-in-yoga-gear-with-a-conscience/

http://www.terra20.com/style-beauty/7516/qa-with-canadian-eco-style-icon-nicole-bridger/

6 | Moneca Kaiser

May 2nd, 2013 at 12:31 pm

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Very interesting article Andrea. This story is so sad thanks for shining some light on it.

7 | Patti

May 2nd, 2013 at 12:49 pm

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I do make a conscious effort when I purchase my sons clothing.I feel very strongly about buying quality versus quantity which is also environmentally friendly. We are fortunate to have some Children’s clothing stores in the Ottawa area one being Elm Hill Kids who I see tries hard to source as much ethically and Canadian made products as possible and find this store and many other locally owned businesses easy to access.
Thanks for sharing this as its valuable to hear people’s opinions on this entire issue.

8 | Judy

May 2nd, 2013 at 1:33 pm

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I think the first step is awareness raising. Being conscience that someone, somewhere is making your clothes.

9 | Harry Nowell

May 2nd, 2013 at 1:43 pm

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I am sure much of our clothing comes from factories like this. I just heard Galen Weston (head of Loblaws (and therefore Joe Fresh, as well)) talk about supporting the victims, better factory audits, etc.

Good for him, except, why wait until the tragedy? I think the only reason they’ve come to bat is the positive goodwill they can receive for being seen as such.

I don’t think most companies will act in responsible ways unless they are pushed into it or see a goodwill opp! Pessimistic, maybe, but for many of these big companies, profits and shareholders come first. I would say this even for some of the ‘better’ companies!

Healthy profits ARE necessary, don’t get me wrong. (I run a small business!)

Joe Fresh provides cheap clothes (and we own some Joe.) How do you think they can make it that cheap?!

In one related CBC radio interview there was mention of a couple of websites that allow you to follow the path of your clothing from source to retailer. I cannot remember the sites – sounded great – maybe Miss Fish can find them for us?! It was something like “FollowYourT”

In the meantime, I am a big fan of small businesses creating fun, funky, and local clothing like Workshop (mentioned by Miss Fish) and their sister shop Flock. Sadly, they don’t cater to men!

Thanks, Andrea, for making some waves!!

10 | LorrieD

May 2nd, 2013 at 2:50 pm

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On a light note, you looked smokin’ in the dress you were wearing today. :)

I do struggle with who’s decision it was to have these workers in these conditions. I fear it is a world we just cannot comprehend, however I’m thankful for those that write, and broadcast so we can make a better attempt to.

11 | Mimi

May 2nd, 2013 at 4:53 pm

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While you’re mentioning shops that are Canadian, lets look a block North and remember that Twiss & Weber cuts a great swath … and they have a few items that could be of interest to men – like their fab little shoe adornments.

Another option you can think about is Etsy … I bought my last handbag from a maker in BC and had it shipped out.

12 | Danielle

May 2nd, 2013 at 7:55 pm

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Quick comment on finding Canadian-made apparel: I am surprised you did not head over to Flock at Wellington and Caroline. Ask for Laura – she has an excellent eye.

13 | andrea tomkins

May 2nd, 2013 at 9:10 pm

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Thanks for your thoughtful comments everyone.

Danielle – When I wrote Workshop I actually meant Flock! Haha. Sorry. I am brain dead this week!

Mimi – Small stores are the way to go for sure. I always like to shop local when I can.

Harry – most of the stores I mentioned above have men’s clothes too you know!

14 | coffeewithjulie

May 2nd, 2013 at 10:14 pm

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Wow, okay, Joe Fresh is part of this tragedy? Geez, I just bought a complete outfit for my son that I thought was adorable the last time I was in the store. I think I even tweeted about how much I loved it. Don’t I feel like a goon now? I need to think about this issue more. It crosses my mind, but then I seem to forget about it when faced with a tshirt for my son at $8 in the grocery store versus $25 in another store. I used to shop consignment for the kids, but always found that by age 3 or 4 the availability drops off dramatically.

15 | Amanda

May 2nd, 2013 at 11:22 pm

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I’ve ignored my conscience for far too long on this issue but, I am pledging to change my ways. I’ve thought about starting a blog about it, but… that probably won’t happen ;)
FYI, Jacob has Canadian-made pieces as well. The maple leaves on the tags are fairly identifiable from a distance.

16 | Sasha

May 3rd, 2013 at 8:08 pm

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Have you checked out Adorit on York Street? I’ve been meaning to go there for quite some time, but since I’m not from in town, I’m kind of scared of downtown. They call themselves an ethical eco-friendly boutique.

17 | Linda Olsen

May 5th, 2013 at 8:23 am

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Saw this in the news a couple of days ago. Truly a terrible tragedy. What I found unbelievable was that some of the managers and supervisors actually stopped staff who sensed something was wrong from leaving the building, increasing the number of tragedy. I’d certainly be more aware of the origins of my clothing from now on

18 | binki

May 6th, 2013 at 2:14 pm

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We sometimes need a heart-breaking tragedy to shift our focus to things that we prefer not to think of or discuss. For the 600+ who died in Bangladesh, I will do the following.

I WILL WRITE to Joe Fresh and to Walmart and ask them what they are doing to ensure safe working conditions for the folks who produce their/our cheap garments. Give them 2 months to answer. Tell them there is blood on their hands and that I WILL BOYCOTT their stores if they do nothing. And then boycott if I hear nothing and see no changes.

I WILL keep continue to check tags to see where consumer goods are made, and I will buy more Canadian-made goods. In case you didn’t know, COSTCO sells quality clothing at a great price and it’s made in Canada. Seriously. The big name brands they sell (Hillfigger, Chaps, Levis) are produced offshore. Just goes to show, you can make clothing in Canada and sell it for a reasonable price.

19 | andrea tomkins

May 6th, 2013 at 3:23 pm

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Thanks for your thoughtful comments everyone!

Binki – I’ve heard that about Costco, specifically about their yoga pants! It’s worth checking out for sure. If anyone has any other great sources for Canadian made and ethically made clothing I would love to hear them!

I was also alerted to this petition this morning. Check it out: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/crushed_to_make_our_clothes_ss/?bPtJWbb&v=24793

20 | binki

May 6th, 2013 at 4:37 pm

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Excellent piece on the price of and obsession with low low low cost goods – in today’s Citizen (next to letters section). The Rubbermaid case is one we can all relate to.

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