Without realizing it, many Americans and Western Europeans played a part in the disaster that killed nearly 600 people in the horrid clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh. The impacts we have on the environment, the way we use our natural resources and the unsafe working conditions that plague many parts of the world are usually far off abstractions to most of us. Since we frequently get our food, clothing and other consumer goods from faraway places, we are disconnected from the environmental damage or worker hazards to which we unknowingly contribute.
In hunting and gathering cultures and subsistence agricultural societies, people were always closely connected to their environment. When harm was inflicted upon the local environment, the damage was obvious and usually impacted the people directly. Overgraze your rangeland and you damage the productivity of the place your animals feed. If poor farming practices allow your soil to wash away, you'll lose soil fertility. Chop down trees faster than they can regenerate and you'll use wood faster than it grows back. But in today's interconnected, worldwide economy, it's easy to lose track of such problems. When damage is done, we can be thousands of miles from where the environmental problems or workplace conditions are the worst. When Chinese factories produce air pollution, we get inexpensive products but never see the health problems it creates for the Chinese people.
When we eat a hamburger (from the 200 million tons of beef we import) from former tropical rainforest in Central America , we never see the damage to the rainforest. When we buy grapes or bananas from thousands of miles away that have been treated with toxic pesticides, we seldom think about the victims of pesticide poisoning that pick them. When we ignore recycling opportunities, we conveniently ignore the landfill where the trash ends up. When we buy a diamond that was mined in or around Sierra Leone in Africa, we don't think much about the importance of diamonds in funding the brutal wars in the region that have killed four million over the last two decades.
Even before the catastrophes of the last few months, the stories of manufacturing sweatshops have given a black eye to many well known companies. But when more than 500 people die in a building collapse, people pay particular attention. The nightmare in Bangladesh is especially heinous when one reads of the almost incomprehensible disregard for human life that was shown by both the owners and some of the government officials that discounted the severity of the disaster. Despite substandard construction and a warning that the building was in danger of collapse, owners and managers sent workers into the building just hours before. Afterwards, Bangladesh's finance director said that, "I don't really think it's serious…" and that the accident would not harm Bangladesh's thriving garment industry.
Though the nature of the clothing industry makes it difficult to nail down the buyers and stores that would sell products manufactured in such factories, the labels have been sold by several American retail chains and US-based web retailers. Yes, ignorance is bliss. Sometimes it's even criminal.
Readers are encouraged to read more via internet searches on the Bangladesh garment industry and its connections to retailers in the United States as well as several other topics mentioned in this environmental column.