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Is the Bangladesh Factory Too Far for Us to Care?

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The death toll from the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh now stands at over 350 people. The footage of young children holding up pictures of their missing mothers is heart wrenching. And in its aftermath, there too was a manhunt for the owners who ignored any efforts at improving deplorable working conditions. Yet at the risk of committing sociology, why have we not seen the same commitment to the story from the news media? From the world's second largest textile exporter, why aren't "We Stand With Bangladesh" t-shirts out of stock?

In a wonderfully sensitive opening essay, Jian Ghomeshi raised the question of proximity when it came to our response to human tragedies. He pushed on our ability to transport ourselves within the lives of those less fortunate, whether in our own city or across the globe. Distance may have become arbitrary, but how we connect the dots on matters of human suffering may be no less circuitous. We can certainly grieve, and most rightfully so, with the victims of Boston because we can all picture ourselves there. Instantly feeling complete and utter vulnerability. But when it's market forces or the lack of regulations that inflict terror, how are we to feel? When there are seismic global income inequalities, are we so surprised that reactions to human lives lost are not equal? It remains hard for us to imagine working in those quarters or receiving those wages (though economists will quickly and correctly remind us that a dollar in North America is not a dollar in India). Therein may lie the difference. Our role and culpability in the collapse remains unsettling, and the axis of evil in this tragedy not so well delineated.

I do agree that boycotting "Made in Bangladesh" is not the answer, however. Nor is going completely naked. How we first bring accountability for safe and decent working conditions will be pivotal in an ever complicated consumer chain. Rest assured, North Americans continue to exercise individual purchasing power, while our own mix of apathy and a fervent brand culture does make for a thorny situation. Internationally, finding the right mix of policy levers to drive growth is the stuff of domestic elections, and how to better redistribute that growth requires a serious rethinking around the economics of poverty.

A few months back, a friend of mine was elated about his role working for Joe Fresh at a Fashion Week event. I was initially skeptical when I first heard about the launch of a fashion concept coming out of Loblaws (my prediction of Galen Weston Jr. donning hipster garb for an ad never came through). He told me about Joe Fresh's newfound traction in the American market, and I was relegated to calling it a Canadian success story. I now take that back, knowing fully well that many other companies were also implicated with the factory. Joe Fresh will be a true success story if it plays a leading role in raising the standards in Dhaka going forward, not retreating behind empty PR statements and packing up shop to the next lowest producer. We, as Canadians, have to hold them to a higher standard than Walmart.

For the rest of us, it may mean a different sort of solidarity. It may not be escaping from brands completely, but finding meaningful ways to demand better. Signing petitions and speaking up. There probably won't be any "Bangladesh Strong" logos to make loud fashion statements. We'll have to grapple with deeper questions, uncomfortable like the tags that line our shirts.

Bangladesh Factory Collapse (UPDATED)
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