Thursday, May 01, 2014

Consumerism: Disposable Consumer Goods At High Human Costs

By Julio Godoy* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

BERLIN (IDN) - Hundreds of thousands around the world demonstrate for better working conditions and fair wages on the International Labour Day. However, when May 1 is over, many of these demonstrators go back to their daily reckless consumption patterns, which consider practically all consumer goods as disposable, and therefore support international corporations, which exploit workers and poison the environment.

The garment industry is a most illustrative example of the follies of modern-times consumerism: Take Bella, a German girl living near the city of Bremen: Several times each year, Bella makes a shopping spree to a local fashion store and comes back loaded with clothes.

The store Bella regularly visits belongs to Primark, the Ireland-based clothing retailer, which due to its aggressive price policies has become a European leader in the sector. As Primark announces itself, it is “Adored by fashion fans and value seekers alike (and) is widely established as the destination store for keeping up with the latest looks without breaking the bank.”

“Whatever I wear, I bought it at Primark’s,” Bella says, while pointing at her body. “There, for less than 50 euros, I get a skirt, a blouse, sunglasses, underwear, stockings, and shoes. Because the clothes at Primark’s are so cheap, I don’t even need to wash them. I wear everything once, and then I throw everything away.”

Asked whether she is aware of the human and environmental consequences of such behaviour, Bella shrugs. “I do not know where and how Primark produces its clothes,” she says.

Bella and her likes even publish frenetic video reports on the so-called social media, from YouTube to Facebook, of their shopping sprees in such fashion stores. Regular clients of such stores confess that the shopping sprees are undeserving. “Most of the time, you even have to fight with other clients to grab an item,” Bella admits.

Such consumer behaviour doubtless contributed to the catastrophe of Rana Plaza, the Bangladesh building that housed several garment fabrics, and which collapsed one year ago, on April 2013, killing more 1,134 textile workers, practically all of them women, and injuring up to 2,500 people.

After the catastrophe, remainders of clothes were found in the site, which proved that numerous international fashion brands, from Benetton to Yes Zee, had contracts with the garment factories operating there. Last March, almost one year after the catastrophe, Primark officially admitted that one of its suppliers, New Wave Bottoms, operated in the Rana Plaza building.

A typical worker at the Rana Plaza garment factories earned less than 38 euros per month, roughly 50 percent of what is an estimated living wage for Bangladesh. Bj√∂rn Weber, Frankfurt-based research and logistics director at the Planet Retail counselling company, said at the time, “The working conditions at the factories were catastrophic.”

Operators at the garment factories had to work 12 hours per day, seven days a week, Weber added.

As Pope Francis, reacting to the news of the building’s collapse, said, “This is slave labour… Not paying fairly… because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit.”

It may well be that the clothes Bella regularly bought at Primark’s in Bremen, were manufactured by Rehana Khatun, a Bangladeshi girl of roughly the German girl’s age. Rehana, who used to work as a seamstress at one of the numerous garment factories of Rana Plaza, lost her legs during the catastrophe, and will be handicapped for the rest of her life.

Deadliest

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building was the deadliest garment-factory accident in history. According to the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence, the upper four floors, which housed the factories, were built without a permit.

Despite evidence that the structure of the Rana Plaza was severely damaged, and that banks and other businesses located in the lower floors of the building had closed for fear of a collapse, the garment factories continued operating.

The disaster moved the Bangladesh government, in cooperation with employers’ and workers’ lobby groups, and with the support of international organisations, such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), to draw a plan of action, which includes building and fire safety assessments, labour inspections, and occupational safety and health, rehabilitation and skills training for survivors.

Additionally, a compensation fund was set up, through which the international corporations that contracted with the garment factories operating in the building would indemnify the families of the victims of the catastrophe. The fund was supposed to collect about 40 million U.S. dollars to compensate the more than 3,000 workers injured or the families of those killed.

However, according to official figures, as of April 24, 2014, only half of the brands involved in the catastrophe have contributed or promised to contribute about 16 million U.S. dollars to the fund.

In March 2014, almost one year after the catastrophe, Primark announced that it would immediately “begin making long-term payments to the 580 workers (or their dependents) of (our) supplier, New Wave Bottoms, which occupied the second floor of the eight storey building, who died, or were injured as a result of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh.”

The payment, Primark added, will be met in full, in cash, and will amount to some 9 million U.S. dollars.

Primark also announced a new campaign to “to reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing processes.” To that end, last February, Primark committed “to work with industry and stakeholders including (the non-governmental environmental organisation) Greenpeace to ban the use of all hazardous chemicals from the supply chain.”

But another NGO, Clean Clothes Campaign, which advocates the improvement of working conditions and supporting the empowerment of workers in the global garment and sportswear industries, complains that many international fashion brands have so far failed to publicly commit to the fund, “despite having links to the factories in the building.”

These brands are Adler Modemaerkte, Grabalok (Store 21), Manifattura Corona, Ascena Retail, Gueldenpfennig, Matalan, Auchan, Iconix (Lee Cooper), NKD, Benetton, J C Penney, PWT (Texman), Carrefour, KANZ/ Kids Fashion Group, Yes Zee, and Cato Fashions.

Questions of compensations and safety measures could be avoided if consumers across the world did not ignore the ethical consequences of their “fashion addiction”, labour experts and social scientists say.

Hubertus Thiermeyer, leader of the trade section at the German Ver.di union, says:”When you buy a t-shirt for less than two euros, you must be aware that somebody else in the world is paying a huge share of the labour and environmental costs you don’t care to own.”

Dictatorship of consumerism

For social scientist Harald Welzer, director the Centre for Interdisciplinary Memory Research in Essen, a joint research department belonging to the German universities of Bochum, Dortmund and Duisburg, a dictatorship of consumerism has been established across the industrialised world, with the objective of precisely eradicating such ethical considerations.

Welzer has even coined a word, “IKEA-isation”, in reference to the Swedish furniture giant, to describe the industrial trend of transforming formerly durable consumer goods into disposable items, from clothing to electronic devices.

Welzer is right: The serviceable life of electronic devices, for instance of cellular phones, has fallen considerable, and will continue to do so, not because the appliances break down, but because the corporations’ merchandising techniques persuade consumers that they need “up to date.”

“During the past decade, residents of the Western world have doubled the amount of clothes they buy,” Welzer said. “The IKEA-isation of the world progresses at a furious pace, and consumers should be ashamed of themselves.”

Alas, they are not: One year after the collapse of the Rana Plaza, brands such as Primark continue to grow. After having conquered the fashion addicts in Europe, Primark recently announced the opening in 2015 of its first store in the U.S., in Boston, Massachusetts.

In a typical consumer reaction, and exactly one year after the Rana Plaza catastrophe, a U.S. fashion blogger applauded the decision: “We nearly woke up our neighbours this morning with all of our screaming and shouting when we read the news that Primark is coming to (Boston) … We're talking (of) sneakers for 13 U.S. dollars, sunglasses for three dollars, and swimsuits for 20 dollars!”

Such a behaviour flips the bird to the sufferings of Rehana Khatun and her likes, and to the good intentions campaigns launched by organisations such as the ILO after the collapse of the Rana Plaza.

Still, ILO insists. “Rana Plaza is a call for global action on decent working conditions,” ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said at a high-level meeting held early April in Copenhagen on garment and textiles production in Bangladesh.

“We cannot wait for future disasters before we act to make the world's factories and workplaces safe and decent places to work,” said Ryder at the event, Post Rana Plaza: a Vision for the Future, organized by the Government of Denmark in Copenhagen. Indeed, we cannot: If only consumers would care.

*Julio Godoy is an investigative journalist and IDN Global Editor. He has won international recognition for his work, including the Hellman-Hammett human rights award, the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Investigative Reporting Online by the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists, and the Online Journalism Award for Enterprise Journalism by the Online News Association and the U.S.C. Annenberg School for Communication, as co-author of the investigative reports “Making a Killing: The Business of War” and “The Water Barons: The Privatisation of Water Services”