Kuntz: What not to wear

BY KATIE KUNTZ | JUNE 20, 2013 5:00 AM

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Over the last week, approximately 600 garment factory workers in Bangladesh have fallen severely ill, with acute stomach pains and vomiting.

Some media sources speculated that the illness may be caused by poor water quality.

However, Bangladeshi authorities deny that theory. They reportedly believe that the illness is not due to poor water quality but rather caused by anxiety and hysteria brought on by the devastating working conditions so many garment workers face in Bangladesh.

While neither theory has been confirmed, it is the case that such poor working conditions are normally responsible for hundreds of deaths annually due to fires, illness, and immense poverty.

In April, more than 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers burned to death in a factory fire where they were trapped and severely mistreated.

These garment workers supplied clothing to popular American clothing outlets including Walmart, Sears, and Disney.

Consumers pay a lot of money for style and fashion, and yet much of that money allows faraway workers to be exploited and sometimes die.

The clothing industry is largely insulated from these tragedies, however. Clothing manufacturers in Bangladesh saw revenues of some $20 billion, according to Ethical Corp., an independent company that focuses on research worldwide.

Furthermore, the global clothing and textile industry sees revenues of more than $3 trillion a year, and yet the vast majority of textile manufacturing workers are paid such low wages they may not be able to afford food and suffer malnutrition.

The condition of these workers, not only in Bangladesh but also in countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic are examples of why every day Americans need to consider what not to wear.

Maybe this is a lot to put on the shoulders of an average shopper, but the fact is that our decisions affect other people whether we like that or not.

Fortunately, there are actually some factories that do treat their employees well — and there are ways to find out which factories those are and where their merchandise is sold.

For example, one group of students on the University of Iowa campus, called the Students Abolishing Slavery, did some of that work for us. The group demanded that the University Bookstore sell clothing made in the Dominican Republic by union employees.

The union workers happen to make Iowa Hawkeye apparel. Their factory now pays them three times the minimum wage of the Dominican Republic — about $2.35 per hour.

This is considered a living wage, based on extensive research from the Workers Rights Consortium. A living wage allows the workers to afford basic utilities, fulfill nutrition requirements, and even have some money to save for school and transportation. Over the past decade, workers in the Dominican Republic have rallied and protested and worked to gain rights, and now, at least in one area, in the south called Villa Altagracia, there has been fairly huge success.

However, none of these things matter if consumers don’t buy the products.

That is why the consumers, or us, Americans, need to pay attention to what we choose to wear.

It is admittedly a challenge to know where our clothes, shoes, socks, and accessories are created, but it is not impossible. And as more people are suffering because of the horrendous conditions of their factories, it is increasingly the responsibility of the consumer to make changes, because it is clear that many in the fashion industry will not make changes without consumer demand.

We must first recognize that our purchases make a difference. If we buy clothes made by sweatshop workers, the company has no incentive to improve those conditions.

If, alternatively, we buy clothes made by people who are paid a living wage, and their rights are respected, then those companies get stronger and can treat more people better. Other factories will realize they must change how the workers are treated if they want people to continue to buy their clothes.

So while it may sometimes seem as if those of us in Iowa can do nothing when a factory catches fire and kills 1,100 people on the other side of the world — we can. All we have to do is pay attention to what not to wear.

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