Bangladesh Factory Collapse: How Can We Turn Anger Into Action?

ByMarcelia Muehlke

With images from the recent tragedy in Bangladesh splashed across the web and TV it is hard to ignore what are normally the hidden "costs" — what economists call "negative externalities" — behind the things we buy. However at this sad time it is important to remember that some garment companies are actively improving lives and are creating positive externalities that we also rarely hear about. To balance out the sadness in the news I offer a story of hope from the garment industry, as well as resources for consumers who want to vote with their dollars for the kind of world they want.

At Celia Grace Eco & Fair Trade Wedding Dresses every dress has a story behind it that is just as beautiful as the dress itself. Celia Grace is a for-profit social enterprise — a triple bottom line business that considers people, planet, and profit on equal footing with every decision it makes. 

The story behind a Celia Grace wedding dress starts in a rural village in Cambodia where families live in houses on stilts, grow rice, and have no electricity. Women in the village have been weaving silk for ages, passing the skill down from grandmother to mother to daughter for generations. The women weave silk on a wooden loom thread by thread using foot treadles and a pulley to send the silk thread-laden shuttle back and forth. In the dry season when most silk is woven you can hear the clack-clack-clack from dozens of looms while walking down the main dirt road of the town. 

In a bridal salon in the U.S., all the bride sees is a beautiful, luminescent silk like nothing else in the store. What she doesn’t see is the impact that her purchase is making in the Cambodian village. Celia Grace pays silk weavers a living wage so they can send their girls to school and keep their families healthy. Both health and education — especially for girls — has a positive ripple effect for future earnings, reduced child mortality, and more. Buying this silk also helps to preserve a traditional cultural art form that was nearly lost during the Cambodian genocide. The bride doesn't see the water filter that Celia Grace donates to a village family with every dress sold.

The bride doesn't see the safe dyes used on the silk or how much pollution and water contamination she is preventing. The positive ripple effects of empowering women who can stay in their village rather than moving to the city or another country where they risk abuse, disease, or even human trafficking goes unnoticed.

As a bride tries on a Celia Grace wedding dress she observes the beautiful beading and sewing, but she doesn't see the women's cooperative where the dress was made. She doesn't know that the women who made her dress earned a living wage, worked in healthy and safe conditions, worked reasonable hours, have upward mobility, get benefits, and are treated like the smart, talented, professionals that they are. The positive externalities of empowering women like self-esteem, gender equity, and hopefully political participation and even peace are unseen by the customer.

Given the building collapse and rising death toll in Bangladesh, many consumers are thinking about where their clothing comes from and they will want to punish "“bad" companies. I hope these people will also take some time to seek out "good" companies and support them. Here are some resources to do so:

- The Good Guide: The Good Guide is a web site and app with "the world's largest and most reliable source of information on health, environmental, and social impacts of consumer products." Search for and see different brands rated for health, environment, and social responsibility.

- The Fair Trade Federation Members List: The Fair Trade Federation is "the trade association that strengthens and promotes North American organizations fully committed to fair trade." The members list allows you to search by location, business name, and more to find products made following fair trade conditions.

- Green America Green Pages: Green America is a nonprofit with a mission to "harness economic power — the strength of consumers, investors, businesses, and the marketplace — to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society." The Green Pages list companies that match those values.