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Who pays for that $12 t-shirt?

Posted by Joanna Weiss  May 13, 2013 12:53 PM

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What's the true cost of cheap clothes? The collapse of a Bangladesh factory last month, which killed more than 1,100 workers, shone a spotlight on the often-brutal working conditions in a nation that has become world's second-largest clothing exporter. It also spurred action: On Monday, H&M, Zara, and a group of other clothing companies -- including the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger -- signed onto a legally-binding plan that would require tough inspections, mandatory repairs, and worker input into factory conditions. Other companies, such as Wal-Mart and the Gap, say they're taking their own steps, but they're facing tough pressure to join the pact.

Is the agreement good enough to put consumers' minds at ease? Or is there more the public can and should do to demand better conditions in foreign factories? Do you think about the origins of your clothes? Would you be willing to pay more for pants that were made under fair labor practices? Do you seek out stores that sell American-made goods? Here are some thoughts on the reality and morality of cheap fashion. Add yours to the comments or tweet at the hashtag #BostonComment.

Shoppers: Don't back down!

Katie Kingsbury.jpgRetailers should put more faith in customers’ — even discount shoppers’ — willingness to pay more for labels that promote fair-labor practices. But consumers will also need to earn that trust. A few ideas: Demand more information about how and where goods are made. Make those origins matter. Shop chains that have committed to improving worker safety, as H&M and Zara did this week, and hold them accountable to those agreements. Avoid retailers that have not. And don’t back down when that next cute handbag catches your eye.
Katie Kingsbury, @katiekings
Boston Globe editorial writer

Consumer revolt?

benetton fb page - bigger.png
Benetton Facebook page

Change is easier than it looks

ellen ruppel shell mug.jpg There's no need to make radical changes in our lifestyles, or spend significantly more money on our clothes and other consumer goods--that's just smoke being blown by defeatists. We can simply demand fair prices and fair practices--they are not incompatible--but we need to be persistent. Dangerous sweatshops are not a necessary "first step" toward development nor the secret to low prices. Labor costs have very little impact on the final price of a garment, and indeed some very expensive clothing is made under sweatshop conditions. So the trick is to keep an eye out for labels, try to make informed purchases, and aim for affordable quality that lasts.
Ellen Ruppel Shell, Boston University professor
Author, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Will shoppers change their ways? Can they?

Brenda Tobias mug.jpgDo any of us need a $10 shirt? Well, the truth of the matter is that yes, many people in this country need a $10 shirt. Could we buy fewer goods at a higher price? Probably, but the more we buy and the frequency of which we buy translates into jobs. If (insert brand/shop/designer) wants to roll out a splashy marketing campaign about their cruelty-free manufacturing, that’s just fine. But in the end it’s a rather small segment of the population who has the luxury of money or shopping consciousness to respond.
Brenda Tobias, @BrendaTNYC
Former fashion industry analyst

How to sell clothes made in the USA

Mark Bollman.jpgIt's our job to reeducate consumers and try to help them understand that this isn't the shirt in your closet. It may look the same from the outside, but it's not the same. Yeah, you're going pay more upfront, but over time you're not going to have to replace that item. So you may spend 30 percent more when you make that purchase, but you’ll realize that value twice over, because you won’t have to go back to the store and buy it again...You just changed from purchasing new items just 'cause you want something, to purchasing a wardrobe.
Mark Bollman, President and Founder
Ball and Buck, Newbury Street

Priorities, here and abroad?

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weiss.jpegBoston.comment is an exchange for ideas about Boston and beyond, brought to you by the Boston Globe editorial page and edited by Globe columnist Joanna Weiss. We're the sponsor of's #LabDebates and the creator of the Choose Your Own Adventure mayoral game.

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