A far-off fire

November 27, 2012 

It’s a heart-rending sight, the bodies of dozens of textile workers who died over the weekend in a factory fire in far-off Bangladesh. Each corpse is shrouded in white sheeting wrapped by ropes. At least 112 people died in a building with no emergency exits.

For these workers – some earning as little as $40 a month – the cost of cheap clothing was their lives. Americans, when we shop, should think more about the costs of a system that produces inexpensive textiles in Third World settings and ships them to stores here and around the globe.

It’s a complex calculation. North Carolina knows that better than almost anywhere else.

In large part the production of everyday clothes, towels and sheets has been outsourced to low-wage factories, sometimes modern, sometimes not, in countries such as China, Bangladesh (now the world’s No. 2 textile exporter), India, Indonesia and elsewhere. The simple economic logic is that these products can be made so much more cheaply abroad that any advantages U.S. factories have in shipping, etc., pale in comparison.

No one in North Carolina needs to be told of the effects on our own textile workers, who have had it rough for years now. Yet North Carolina consumers have, no doubt, benefitted from the low prices of imported goods.

Americans must be mindful, too, that our own fire safety record, in textile plants (the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, 1911) and in North Carolina factories (Imperial Food Products in Hamlet, 1991) isn’t perfect. And even $40 a month may be meaningful pay in a country just beginning to rise. World trade, hard as it is on so many people, can be a good thing.

Aside from insisting that foreign textile manufacturers adhere to certain standards, including safety and the right to unionize, we as consumers can consciously seek out Made in USA products. We can encourage, through our spending choices, more of the worldwide textile industry to remain, to modernize and even to grow, in places such as North Carolina.

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