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It's been a year since the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka Bangladesh.  1,134people died (Guardian) when a clothing factory collapsed.  The blame for this collapse lies with the relentless drive for cheap clothing and rapid fulfilment times demanded by "fast fashion" and our desire for it.

It is simplistic to look for the protagonists to blame this human tragedy on.  Cartoon parodies of an evil factory owner whipping his staff like a pantomime villain, or greedy corporate executive - the 1% - looking no further than his stock options and the opportunity to buy a larger super-yacht to peacock around Sardinia in.  Simplistic and wrong.

The problem with evil of course, as any A-Level philosopher will tell you, is not that there are good people and bad people, but that there is good and bad in all of us.  It really is only in pantomimes that we can find the evil villain to be caught.

Sadly Rana Plaza is no pantomime.  To prevent Rana Plaza then is not a case of stopping a few evil people, but for all of us to act better, and there's the rub.  "Acting better" is *hard*:

Firstly it's complex.  How should you shop for clothes to do the decent thing?  How much should a a garment cost to provide a fair wage to all involved?  Even if you pay more, how do you know the money is going where you want it to?  The answer to these questions will probably surprise you!

Secondly it involves sacrifice.  Probably.  To pay a little more for a garment means a little less money to spend on something else.

Thirdly it involves action.  Figuring it all out and doing nothing is just bar-room philosophy.

It all adds up to an unpopular message for many, but for those seeking an answer to that most ancient of questions "how to live a good life?" then hopefully it's a message that you will embrace and I encourage you to do so.  After all life's not a dress rehearsal.

 

Arthur & Henry are on the Advisory Committee for Fashion Revolution Day.  Will be blogging more about it in the coming weeks.

Comments

Bron:

(This is a lengthy response and is a part of a Business Ethics Course through the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand).
You say that is it simplistic to look for protagonists to blame, that there is good and bad in all of us, and that we all must act better, which is “hard.” By “hard” I expect this is a description of the challenge that corporations and individuals face in order to make and effect ethical decisions. You describe some of these challenges as being, “how to shop by doing the decent thing”, “how much should a garment cost to provide a fair wage?,” “how can we be sure the money is going to the right place?” You challenge us by asking is it ok to pay more for a garment, and have less to spend elsewhere?” The logo – “Be Curious – Find Out – Do something” is an affirmative statement inviting us to look for ways on how we can act better.

I’d like to apply some theory to establish where any blame should lie, and where compensation can be claimed. Western shoppers want to buy affordable clothes, resulting in outsourcing to countries with lower building standards and working conditions in order to meet this expectation. Freeman (2006) takes the view that businesses are a part of, and reliant on society, and that each stakeholder must be treated as important. Stakeholders include owners, suppliers, management, employees, the local community and customers, and that the business must be managed in the interests of all its primary stakeholders. Taking into account all concerns of the stakeholders is a requirement for ethical business decision making.

Let’s look at Freemans’ theory in light of “how much should a garment cost to provide a fair wage to all?” The cost paid by the consumer is the result of market forces, and there has been an acceptance in western society that garments are manufactured in countries with much lower wages, living conditions and building standards. The western consumer doesn’t see what is behind the price tag; they tend to be only interested in paying the best price. Corporations are expected to increase profits as one of their main roles; however there are other considerations, such as the safety and well-being of their employees, as well as using environmental resources responsibly. The cost of maintaining these obligations will be passed onto the consumer. Consumers have an expectation to pay less for their garments, resulting in less income to be dispersed by the corporation to its stakeholders. It has been a year since the collapse of the factory, killing more than a 1,000 people; however it would seem that the consumer has forgotten about it, and is continuing to demand affordable clothing. You have responded by educating the consumer, and connecting them to where their garments come from. This is a nod to the Kantian notion of respect for people. Through respect the customer by providing the information they need, there is the expectation that they will make the right decision. Kant, an 18th century philosopher, says that we must ensure the principles of our actions could be used by all rational beings. (The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, Module 1, 2009, p.28). Great to see that you are applying this respect to your customers, and to the supply chain.

It would appear that you are taking a Utilitarian approach, where you are making decisions in such a way that the total benefits exceed the total costs by the maximum amount possible, and the morality of the action is determined by its consequence. It could be said that decisions are made through determining where the greatest happiness lies. It is clear that you have looked beyond the consumer, as the base to provide the greatest degree of happiness, you also take into account the famers (and their way they farm, in order to provide the least impact on the environment, to the landlord, to the employees. The human cost of cheap clothing has been high, resulting in desperation and misery to those who are producing it, something you are profoundly aware of. However, is making ethical decisions based on your culture’s standard, and placing this standard on another culture the right thing? This has been called ethical imperialism. (Donaldson 1992). Consumers may not be fully aware of the differences in the standards of human rights between the country they live in, and the country the garments were produced in. It is important to respect the state of the social, economic and cultural situations of the country you outsource to, and yet not to violate any human rights.

Many of the corporations whose employees were killed in the building collapse could easily have removed themselves from any responsibility. Some theorists, such as Velasquez (2003) believe the responsibility for recompense lies with the corporation. Corporations are in a better position to absorb costs when no-one person/entity is morally responsible, as we need to establish a fair way of distributing the costs amongst various non responsible parties. Through charging these payments to the corporations, the charges will eventually find their way to the consumer. It would appear you are a part of this process, and much publicity has been made of numerous corporate who haven’t stepped up to their moral responsibility of sharing the costs of this tragedy. It would also be morally wrong to walk away from the situation, as providing employment to people in developing nations provides them with a life saving income. In order to answer your question “How to live a good life?” you may have to start to establish whose good life you want. Is it the one of a mother in a third world country working long hours for a pittance, or the one of a westerner wearing well made, cheap clothing, or one of a wealthy business manager, whose wealth is made from the former?

References

Donaldson, T. (1992). When in Rome, do what? International business and cultural relativism, in The ethics of business in a global economy, ed., P.M. Minus, Boston: Kluwer, pp. 67-78.
Freeman, R. (2004) A Stakeholder theory of the modern corporation. Ethical Theory and business, 7th, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Velasquez, M. (2003) Debunking corporate moral responsibility, Business Ethics Quarterly 13 (4), 531-562
The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, Module 1, 2009, p.28.

May 13, 2014

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