Friday, May 3, 2013

This is what interdependence looks like

The April 24 building collapse in Bangladesh is now the deadliest garment-factory accident in world history. The death toll as of Friday was 512, the Associated Press reported, and was expected to climb. By contract, New York's Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire killed 146 workers in 1911 and led to workplace safety laws. In 2012 a fire  killed about 260 people in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh killed 112. Like Triangle, exits in those fires were blocked or locked, preventing workers from leaving.

The issues here are complex and don't fall easily into good-bad, right-wrong binaries and don't have simple solutions.

The eight-story garment factory in Bangladesh was built on poor ground that may not have been able to support its weight, leading it to collapse into a heap of rubble. Government officials and building owners likely cut corners to get the building up -- textile work accounts for 80 percent of the country's economy. Shutting down the factories means a loss of jobs, which hurts people's ability to make a living.

This is what interdependence looks like: the clothes you're wearing.

Check your labels. My shirt was made in the U.S. of fabric made in the EU. My dress was made in China. There's no label on my leggings, but the vegan "leather" shoes I have on were made in China. It's pretty much impossible not to own clothes made in southeast Asia.

But there are actions you can take to lessen the harm:

-- Check out the social responsibility statements of stores that you frequent. Most have them on their website. Spend more of your money at stores that have strong policies. If you can't find the policy, send an email to customer service and ask. Companies do not know this is important to consumers if consumers don't tell them.

-- Buy clothes made in countries where workers are likely to be unionized and have better working conditions, such as the US or the European Union. Note that the clothes may still be made with fabric made in sweatshop conditions. An yes, they are more expensive. CNN explains why here.

-- Buy fewer clothes. In this excellent post on the NYTimes parenting blog, KJ Dell'Antonia notes the attraction of cheap clothes. Her youngest son has 70 T-shirts in his closet.
For the money I spent on wasteful quantity, I could have gone for quality, with all the accompanying benefits. As consumers, we can do something about the glut of cheap clothing, and the pressure to make it ever cheaper: we can buy less of it, and use the money we save to pay more for the responsibly manufactured things we do buy (which we can then hand on). We can remember that “low, low prices” for all goods are effectively subsidized by the families of workers here and overseas. And we can clean out our children’s closets, and save some other parent from buying anything new at all.
Here's where the Buddhist practice comes in: Contemplate what clothing means to you.

In 2012, IDP bloggers used April to reflect on their consumption habits as part of Responsible Consumption Month. I looked at why I buy clothes. Clearly, I own enough to last the rest of my life. At the end of the month, I wrote
I saw that sometimes when I was trying to get by buying clothes was a feeling of affirmation or admiration or validation. Sometimes I was looking for reassurance or attention, not green pants. And that had to do with the feeling that clothes could cover over the ways I felt that I was not enough -- could make me seem prettier, smarter, younger, whatever.
Over the past year, I've noticed that I spend less time cruising sales on the Internet or visiting stores. And when I feel a compulsion to buy, I ask myself what that's really about. Sometimes I still buy. Sometimes there is a real need, not just a fancy Band-Aid for wounded feelings.

As Dell'Antonio writes: "How often has a $5.99 sequined fedora made anyone happy for more than a fleeting instant? It happens, I know — surprising things become treasures. But the fewer such things we have, the more likely those treasures are to be enjoyed."

So if you feel compassion for the people and the families affected by the tragedies in the garment industry, sit with it do. Do tonglen. Then do more -- check your labels, check your impulses, write to your favorite clothing company and express your wish that they take this seriously.

Some companies have responded to conditions. The Disney Co. has ordered suppliers not to use factories in five countries with poor records, including Bangladesh. The company said its decision was based on a report from the World Bank that assesses how countries are governed, using metrics like accountability, corruption and violence, among others.

This article on CNN describes the current situation in great detail and offers many links to related stories.

The Karmapa writes:
Our environment and the people we share it with are the main sources of our sustenance and well-being. In order to ensure our own happiness, we have to respect and care about the happiness of others. We can see this in something as simple as the way we treat the people who prepare our food. When we treat them well and look after their needs, only then can we reasonably expect them to take pains to prepare something healthy and tasty for us to eat.
When we have respect for others and take an interest in their flourishing, we ourselves flourish. This can be seen in business as well. When customers have more money to spend, businesses do better. If we wish to flourish individually and together as a society, it is not enough for us to simply acknowledge the obvious interdependence of the world we live in. We must consider its implications, and reflect on the conditions for our own welfare. Where do our oxygen and food and material goods come from, and how are they produced? Are these sources sustainable?

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