A friend recently asked me what I thought about an L.A. writer giving away Abercrombie & Fitch clothes to the homeless to protest that the company will not carry women's XL sizes. While at very first glace this seemed like a good thing, it is extremely demeaning for an L.A.-based writer to hand out A&F clothing to homeless people in order to suggest the brand's worthlessness.
But I don't have much of a problem with Abercrombie & Fitch because they were the second one to sign the international Bangladesh factory safety accord that Wal-Mart and Gap refused to sign after May's garment factory collapse. While I think it is sexist that A&F does not carry not carry women's plus-sizes, I am horrified that it was this, and not 1,127 dead Bangladeshis, that really got under U.S. consumers' skin.
Back in November, after the first devastating Bangladeshi fire at a factory that left more than 100 Bangladeshi garment workers dead where Wal-Mart goods were being produced, the multibillion-dollar company declined to improve their factory's electrical wiring in one of the world's poorest countries to prevent future catastrophes, describing that this would be "costly." For the record, Wal-Mart's six heirs and heiresses make more than the bottom 41 percent of Americans combined yet was supposedly unable to afford making sure that all of the factories their retail is produced in were sufficiently regulated and maintained to prevent horrific deaths.
Equally problematic is the misplaced indignation of the U.S. consumer. With reports of child labor, reports of widespread sickness among Bangladeshi factory workers, and ongoing factory fire scares, where is the appropriate level of consumer outrage and what actions are being taken against these companies?
Around the same time last November as the first factory fire, Wal-Mart workers held a strike on Black Friday to protest that the average Wal-Mart employee earns $22,000 a year, with some making as little as $15,000 annually. The Wal-Mart corporation also apparently cannot afford providing all of its employees with health insurance, opting to instead hire masses of "part-time associates" in order to get around offering their employees a suitable living standard. The "just be glad you have a job" attitude simply isn't good enough. Wal-Mart's labor practices are unacceptable whether it be in the U.S. or in Bangladesh.
I was outraged with U.S. shoppers for letting Wal-Mart make record profits despite the Black Friday protests. The Daily Beast's Megan McArdle described, "Black Friday bargain hunters apparently simply pushed past the scattered protests in search of cheap flat-screen televisions," not caring enough about Wal-Mart workers' lacking living wages and health insurance to let it get in the way of their quest to purchase the latest cheap trinkets. Unfortunately, many U.S. shoppers will continue to purchase these consumer goods no matter how grotesquely factory death tolls reach because the stuff is so cheap.
However, the second part of the story is that low-wage sectors like Wal-Mart and the fast food industry have created a class of people too poor for many alternatives than shopping at low-cost retail stores like Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart funded, bipartisan focus group Wal-Mart Moms of mothers who shop at Wal-Mart at least once a month, describe supporting a raise in the minimum wage but fearing bearing the brunt of increased product costs because they worry about "a 10 cent increase in the cost of gas" and "a dollar more for milk at the grocery store" as many are minimum wage earners themselves.
Wal-Mart profits enormously off of minimum-wage earners' lack of purchasing power -- the low-wage service and retail sectors truly feeds the beast. When CNN questioned Wal-Mart communications spokesman David Tovar about how the company justifies paying employees as low as 15,000 a year, Tovar pointed out that employees also enjoy a 10 percent Wal-Mart discount card. Workers need real wages -- and health care and safety -- not plastic-blend clothing that also destroy the environment (for more on this, see Elizabeth L. Cline's Overdressed).
If U.S. consumers can get riled up enough about Abercrombie & Fitch's lack of plus sizes to create a public relations crisis, why doesn't the death of over a thousand Bangladeshi mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons create a similar public outcry? Those of us who can afford to need to stop shopping at Wal-Mart no matter how cheap their "great deals" are, or else the same thing will keep happening over and over again. Because nothing can actually be that cheap. The real cost of Wal-Mart's products are U.S. workers whose families barely subsist and factories in disrepair at devastating consequence. And yes, I think this matters a whole lot more than whether or not Abercrombie & Fitch carries x-larges.