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Fri, 03 May 2013 14:15:00 GMT | By Deirdre McMurdy, MSN Money

The moral baggage of $10 T-shirts

The tragedy in Bangladesh is as much about us as those who make our clothes.


Deirdre McMurdy

Little kids tend to believe that if they scrunch their eyes shut and refuse to look the monster under the bed won’t be able to see them either.

But it’s not just children who prefer to think that what you don’t see can’t hurt you: an awful lot of grown-ups in developed countries do the same.

That’s certainly been borne out by the reaction to the tragic collapse of a building in Bangladesh. With an estimated 400 people dead and many more injured in the collapse of a garment factory there, people who are keen and constant consumers of cheap clothing expressed shock at the accident and the conditions.

Given that this happened on the heels of a dreadful fire that killed 112 Bangladeshi garment workers just a few months ago, there should be neither shock nor surprise.

Just how exactly do bargain shoppers think they can buy a cotton shirt or a pair of shorts for ten or twelve dollars? Of all the elements that go into making clothing, the margin on labour costs is the single easiest one to squeeze.

And these days, it’s all about the margin. And passing the buck.

The predictable backlash is putting the onus on retailers to do a better job of auditing conditions in the places that sell them the garments they resell to us. This is both hypocritical and unrealistic.

Those kind of check-up visits will certainly add to their costs, which get passed along and affect their ability to compete with the companies that don’t monitor their suppliers.

And how exactly is an occasional visit from a retailer going to change a fundamentally abusive dynamic? Especially when those audits are typically sub-contracted and rubber-stamped.

It’s nice that the Retail Council of Canada plans to update its guidelines for responsible trade.

It’s even nicer that Loblaw, which owns the Joe Fresh clothing brand, is offering financial compensation to the families of the victims.

First world guilt isn’t something that you want associated with your brand, after all. And it’s undeniably awkward that items of Joe Fresh clothing were identifiable in many of the pictures of the factory carnage, just as Loblaw reported a 40 per cent year-over-year increase in quarterly earnings. Those are earnings generated by, among other things, the sale of low-cost clothes made in Bangladesh. (Joe Fresh generates about $1 billion a year for the retailer.)

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