Would we be willing to pay a little bit more for slacks or sneakers we could be sure were produced in a reasonably safe factory?
There's no simple answer to that: Likely, some people would pay extra for that assurance and others wouldn't. But it matters. Do we really want to be complicit in a deadly tragedy, however tenuously, just to save a pittance?
Caring about the way the things we buy are made or grown is personal, and it often involves difficult decisions. Some people hate the idea of factory workers earning wages that, to American ears, sound paltry. But in an impoverished nation, not having what sounds to us like a poorly paying job can be far worse than having one.
Safety, however, is different from low wage scales. When you take a job, you know what you will be paid and accept the terms. You likely wouldn't know if the structure you worked in was highly flammable or desperately unstable.
The safety issue is getting a lot of attention now, thanks to a factory collapse in Bangladesh last month that killed more than 1,100 workers. The facility held numerous manufacturers, producing goods for American and European buyers and retailers. The tragedy of the Rana Plaza facility came on the heels of a factory fire last November elsewhere in that country that killed 112.
Bangladesh is now the world's second-largest garment manufacturer, after China, and it is catching up fast. The industry, which represents 80 percent of Bangladesh's exports, is bringing increased wages and a higher standard of living to the nation's people, almost entirely thanks to money from consumers in much wealthier nations.
Yet some of those consumers wouldn't spend that money if they knew it was luring workers into death traps. They would vote with their dollars, and euros and yen, for companies that take reasonable steps to ensure worker safety while seeking shareholder profits.
In order for anyone to make educated decisions about such purchases, systems must exist to certify which products were safely produced. The creation of such systems by manufacturers and retailers willing to fund and participate in them would be an unalloyed positive.
In the wake of those 1,100-plus deaths, there's been a scramble to create a factory safety plan for Bangladesh that would be funded and certified by prominent retailers. One plan, agreed to by mostly large European concerns including Benetton and Marks & Spencer, involves companies pledging to fund not just inspections of factories, but repairs and improvements as well. American corporations have been slower to sign on to that plan, saying they fear the liability involved in certifying plants as safe and are looking for their own solutions.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which buys products made in at least 279 plants in Bangladesh, and Gap Inc., also a huge player in apparel, both say they're coming up with ways to inspect the factories they do business with, remediate any problems and invest in ongoing safety efforts. That's admirable, but self-policing won't inspire the same trust from consumers that broader, more rigorous monitoring would.
Five North American industry groups have been working to put together a Bangladesh safety proposal since January, with the involvement of more than 25 companies, including Sears. Putting aside the morality issues, joining the European plan, or doing something significant and verifiable as a group, would be in the best business interests of big American retailers.
Many consumers have shown, with things like fair trade coffee, that they'll pay a little more for a product produced humanely. For retailers, offering only products that are manufactured safely, and letting shoppers know that, would be both profitable and just.