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Mirror, Mirror…

February 25, 2013

If you've been following the recent news coming out of Bangladesh about deplorable working conditions in textiles factories and the fires that have caused hundreds of deaths there, you no doubt have felt some outrage.

After all, how could they allow this to happen?

Well, for those of you who remember the old comic strip character Pogo, your outrage needs to be pointed in a different direction. As Pogo often said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

That's because it is the customers of these factories - usually American companies, including both retailers and wholesalers - who are demanding that these products be made as quickly and cheaply as possible. And to do that, they are willing to look the other way when it comes to working conditions, salaries and quality of life of the employees at these factories.

The factory owners know that if they aren't willing to work under those rules, there is somebody else down the road or across the border in the next country that will. It's not a pretty story, but if you're trying to find the bad guys in this story you need look no further than the company across the table from you ... or on the sheets on your showroom and store shelves.

In all the conversations I've been involved in about textiles over many years, never once has the subject of working conditions at the factory ever come up. It's a don't-ask, don't-tell situation where the less questions asked the better.
Mind you, what's going on in the emerging Bangladesh textiles industry is only following the exact same path that every other nation that has been in the early stages of their industrial development has pursued:

From the time the first factories making the first industrialized products - textiles - opened in England in the early 1800s through America's industrial revolution later in the century in New England to the spread of manufacturing to the Southeastern United States in the first half of the 20th century and then to the move across the Pacific to Taiwan, China, India, Pakistan and elsewhere in Asia it's been the same story.

So, what's going on in Bangladesh - the latest textiles powerhouse more so in apparel than home right now, but that's changing - is just the next chapter. It's the natural migration of textiles manufacturing to the lowest cost location. And it's the same pattern that will eventually move manufacturing onto newer ground in Africa and elsewhere.

Through it all, there has been one constant: These factories are just giving the customers what they want.

What's going in Bangladesh right now - and let's not forget it's still happening all throughout Asia and even sometimes right here in the United States - is a true tragedy and very sad. But let's not be hypocritical and point the blame 8,000 miles away. It could be as close as the mirror on your wall.