The horrific fire that ripped through a garment factory in Bangladesh last month and left 112 dead is more than a tragedy. It's an education in how our consumer culture, replete with big-box stores in every town offering a constant supply of cheap goods, can contribute to such carnage.
By all accounts, the Tazreen Fashions factory was a death trap. The only emergency escape required workers on upper floors to descend into a pit of smoke and fire on the ground floor. Windows were covered with iron grates. Extinguishers failed to work and managers initially told workers the noise they heard was a false alarm and ordered them back to work.
The work at hand was making clothing for American and European markets, including garments destined for Sears and Wal-Mart. Even though Wal-Mart had deemed the factory unsafe in a previous inspection, its clothing was still being made there after another Bangladeshi company, apparently too busy to do the work itself, subcontracted it to Tazreen. It may have been blacklisted by Wal-Mart but Tazreen had a reputation for making clothes quickly and cheaply. The local middleman in Bangladesh knew, at the end of the day, that quick and cheap mattered greatly to its giant retail buyers -- and their price-conscious customers.
Sears and Wal-Mart have both fired the companies that subcontracted the work to Tazreen. That's fine, but does it buy us any confidence that a similar fire won't happen again? Not really, because there's no indication that the American demand for cheap textiles and goods is subsiding.
Still, companies like Wal-Mart and Sears are wise to the bad image that comes when workers in poor countries are exploited or put in harm's way. They've made efforts to ensure certain levels of safety and quality in their international supply chain. But the Tazreen fire shows that more can be done. If that means these companies must raise prices slightly to pay for safety improvements at overseas factories, then they should.
Clothing prices in the U.S. are down almost 10 percent in the past five years, according to Bloomberg News. That's good for U.S. consumers, but it may have come with a hefty price tag at the other end of the supply chain.