Not Made in America: Sociologist Looks at the Human Cost of Cheap Clothing

Many people could probably name the country that exports the most clothing — it’s China, of course. But what country comes in at No. 2?

A country slightly bigger than North Carolina and, with 163 million people, one of the most populous in the world for its size, compared to North Carolina’s 10 million: Bangladesh.

North Carolina used to be known for making textiles, until companies moved to countries with lower workers’ wages. Bangladesh makes garments with much of the fabric coming from China.

Jennifer Bair, a University of Virginia associate professor of sociology, has been studying “the globalization of supply chains” for 20 years, with a particular focus on labor standards in overseas garment factories. Bair, who joined UVA’s sociology department last year and is its associate chair, recently went to Bangladesh to check on progress in upgrading safety measures following the fourth anniversary of the worst garment factory disaster in history. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory, where several well-known American and European brands are made, killed 1,134 workers and injured more than 2,000 others in April 2013.

As an undergraduate student, Bair became interested in why development paths differed in Latin America and East Asia. “I became interested in both the similarities and differences in how countries in these regions became integrated into the global economy, and that’s how I started studying global supply chains – or global value chains, as we tend to call them in the development field.”

While working on her Ph.D. at Duke University, she spent a lot of time with textile companies in the Carolinas. They “were just beginning to feel the full force of global competition, because U.S. trade policy had protected the domestic textile producers in the Southeast much more than the apparel manufacturers in the Northeast,” she said.

After NAFTA was implemented in 1994, some companies tried investing in Mexico, hoping it would help…

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