How Deep is Label Guilt After Bangladesh?

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Sweat Shop
A sweat shop in Bangladesh Photo by Jonathan Silvers / via
Sweat Shop
A sweat shop in Bangladesh
Photo by Jonathan Silvers / via

As you pass people on the street, you can tell plenty about what they’re wearing and why. At the very least you can make assumptions or draw correct or incorrect conclusions. One thing you can’t tell is where their clothes were made.

I’ve been thinking about this as more and more information about the Bangladesh disaster at the Rana Plaza factory complex and the broader accounts it’s prompted have come to light.

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Why it’s taken this long for me to become sensitized to the situation I can’t say. Probably because, I’m embarrassed to concede, it’s easy to express passing sympathy for the plight of overworked and underpaid assembly-line employees in far-flung parts of the world and then return to wearing and buying garments in which I remain comfortable.

Not quite so easy now that the Phantom Tac factory coverage continues and in a broadening spotlight. There’s no way to believe that the conditions prevalent in Bangladesh aren’t the same at many other global locales. It’s even more difficult to figure out which factories wherever are free from hazards and which aren’t.

The dilemma has been on my mind as the just-concluded holiday season-during which clothes are, needless to say, popular gift items-progressed. I’ve fixed on the horrendous headlines so intensely that I was struck by my ignorance of what’s in my wardrobe, let alone what’s in anyone else’s.

Sure, I know I’ve bought or been given clothes made anywhere but the United States of America-where I have no idea of the extent to which sweatshop conditions might prevail, although some state their situation.

But I haven’t made a habit of looking into these things. Furthermore, I suspect I’m not unique in paying no attention to the origins of belongings crammed into my closets and drawers, despite many of them featuring explicit labels.

So okay, I conceded to myself, I’ve been having a good old time dressing up and sometimes dressing down during the holidays. Attending an inordinate number of festive occasions, I traveled about daily, hoping I looked presentable and then some. But while making a point of looking good, I certainly wasn’t focusing on who was behind getting me to that well-dressed partygoer stage. So I decided to take a step towards finding out.

I went through much of what I’d picked out for holiday cheer and looked at where each article was made. This is what I found among the heaping pile (or should I say stack?):

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Jacket – Italy
Jacket – China
Jacket – Thailand

Trousers – China
Trousers – Vietnam
Trousers – Dominican Republic

Shirt – Indonesia
Shirt – Sri Lanka
Shirt – “assembled in” Colombia
Shirt – China
Shirt – “tailored in” Korea
Shirt – Peru
Shirt – Sri Lanka
Shirt – “tailored in” Korea

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Sweater – Hong Kong
Sweater – U. S. A.
Sweater – China
Sweater – China

Scarf – England
Tie – England
Socks – Korea
Overcoat – Dominican Republic
Robe – Turkey

I reiterate that this doesn’t cover everything I culled (incidentally, the Korean socks and one of the Chinese sweaters were presents), but the impression remains that my clothes are a virtual United Nations. And it’s a U.N. where China is the powerful member and the United States of America is peripheral.

made in americaThis jibes with various reports, despite recent and not so recent attempts to revive buying “Made in U.S.A.” apparel, such as is made at Americans Working, which, among other sections, includes “Men’s Clothing Made in the USA.”

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The website banners the slogan “Be a Proud American. Proudly Buy American,” which has been put there by All US Clothing, a retail outlet where the mission statement mentions that 98% of clothing sold domestically was made elsewhere. Don’t ask if this is part of a political stance. I can’t say, though it well might be.

A government report through October 2013 shows that textile and apparel imports, in millions, were $88,954.670. For 2012, they were 100,931.92. In the breakdown by country, China’s dominant figures turn out to be curiously akin to what my wardrobe discloses.

Furthermore, a May 2013 CNBC story notes that “American manufacturing icons like Apple and GE already have announced plans to return manufacturing jobs to the United States, but this trend toward ‘inshoring’ is a more elusive goal in the apparel business, despite the outrage sparked by the garment factory collapse in a suburb of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.”

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In the article, Erica Wolf, executive director of Save the Garment Center, comments, “We’ve been trained to buy it cheaper. It’s a challenge to designers and the makers out there. [Pricing is] always going to be an issue, especially when it’s a mass-market retailer.”

A government study fills in certain gaps, mentioning that “[f]rom 1996 to 2011, the U.S. apparel manufacturing industry experienced many job losses-averaging 323 mass layoff events per year. During that period, the largest number of mass layoff events occurred in 1996, when the apparel manufacturing industry initiated a total of 706-leading to the filing of 67,511 initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits.”

None of this is good news, though possibly not truly surprising. But what am I going to do about it? Apparently, I’m one of the many people about whom Erica Wolfe is speaking. I like to look good at a low rather than high cost-and in my case, wearing clothes designed by very recognizable names.

You bet I’d like to make a grand pronouncement about my future buying policies, but would I be willing to stick by them? It’s possible I may be more inclined to check where something I like was made before I head to the checkout counter.

But what real good will that do? Although labels do mention the country where a shirt or jacket et cetera was made or assembled or tailored or whatever, the specific factory is not named. Would a salesperson know Unlikely. Even if he or she did, am I then going to get in touch with the factory management to have their safety practices verified? Or perhaps more tellingly, am I going to contact someone who operates a sewing machine? Also unlikely.

Am I going to buy American exclusively if the Ralph Lauren Polo number I favor was made in Thailand? Yet again, unlikely, and I regret I have to be honest enough to admit all this.

But am I alone here?

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I wonder what Beau Brummell would have said were he in the same quandary.