As the death toll in the Bangladesh garment factory collapse climbs skyward, you can hear Canadians left and right declaring, "I'm never buying Joe Fresh again." That and "I'll never buy ‘made in Bangladesh' again."
Me? I'm looking at my socks.
After nearly a decade of writing the Ecoholic column and before that a couple of years as a researcher in the anti-sweatshop world, I thought I could smugly say I own nothing made in Bangladesh; I go out of my way to support indie Canadian organic or vintage fashion. Then I looked down at my socks and saw that notorious orange stripe on the toes that signals to the world, "These feet are warmed by Joe Fresh." My stomach dropped. Somewhere in our closets, we're all involved.
North Americans have been snapping up $9 shirts and $29 pants without asking how such things can possibly get cheaper with each passing decade, defying everything Canadians know about inflation.
Few questions get asked for very long even when a factory tragedy or scandal happens. But two fires and one massive building collapse in a six-month span are just too much for our collective conscience to bear. Is this the tipping point? Let's make sure it is.
So what should you be doing? Back when I was a labour rights researcher, I learned that you don't call for a boycott unless the workers themselves ask for one. The 3.6 million people, largely women, employed in Bangladesh's garment sector need those jobs. (Apparel makes up 80 per cent of Bangladesh's exports.)
And now that he's there, they need Joe Fresh to stay put. Company execs, freshly shamed, vow to be a "force for good" and to respect local building codes and labour laws. They've also announced a relief fund for victims and their families and a commitment to placing Loblaw monitoring reps onsite.
What we need to do as consumers is let Joe know we're watching, and demand more. There's already a global push for companies to sign the Bangladesh Fire And Building Safety Agreement, which ensures independent auditing and transparency. Sign the petitions at avaaz.org and change.org/joefresh to keep the pressure on.
Kevin Thomas of the Maquila Solidarity Network says consumers should also ask companies: Can workers refuse unsafe work without retribution? Can they freely organize unions? Will workers get a living wage? We have to ask the same of other retailers, like H&M and Gap.
Ultimately, we need to signal to the big guys that we're willing to put our money where our mouth is. Marks & Spencer offers certified fair trade cotton clothes, and so can Joe Fresh.
If Joe pulls up its socks, I'll gladly rock the orange line on my toes. In the meantime, I'm loading up on Maggie's organic fair labour socks. Six for $30 is a pretty good deal at the end of the workday.