I came. I saw. I found my underwear…kind of.
The address I had for my underwear was not actually a factory, but a buying house. In Bangladesh, the factories don’t have marketing and sales staff so they rely on buying houses to link them with buyers.
The buying house that acted as the middle man with Briefly Stated, the company that bought my boxers, just happened to be Linmark, an international company that is one of the largest buying houses in all of Bangladesh. They work with the big boys: Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl’s, you name it. They also work with countless factories, and trying to determine which one made my underwear 10 years ago would be impossible considering that factories are often making t-shirts this week, underwear the next, and pants after that. Pushing the issue to locate the factory would also blow my cover, which Dalton had setup for me against my wishes (see the post below).
And while we’re talking about my cover, allow me to introduce you to Kelsey Timmerman, Garment Buyer (KTGB):
KTGB is a writer in the USA who coined the term Touron (tourist + moron). Eventually, a cartoon of the same name was born and KTGB decided that it would be fun to sell some merchandise. He opened the Touron Attire store with Café Press an online print on demand service. KTGB never expected to sell anything to anyone other than family and friends, but last year he sold over 3,000 pieces and made around $7/shirt for a grand total of $21,000. It was never his intention to get into the t-shirt business. It happened by accident. Oops! KTGB hopes to double his profit/shirt by moving away from the pricey print-on-demand service and sourcing his products in Bangladesh. The reason he knows squat about the industry, and now wants to see the process from start to finish, is that with the print-on-demand service, all he had to do was design the product online and then cash the checks. Café press kept the stock, invoiced the customers, and did the shipping. Oh yeah, his customers have been demanding touron boxers, something like these Christmas boxers. Oh, you make sweaters, okay. Could you embroider them with this character? KTGB wants to get down to business…but can he see your factory first?
So that was my cover and I expected it worked because garment buying is about the only reason any foreigner comes to Bangladesh. That, and everyone thought I pooped US dollars and were eager to get their hands on a contact in the USA.
The only issue with my story was that I was pretty small-time. Most orders are on the magnitude of 10’s if not 100’s of thousands of pieces. But they would always be willing to do a small order first to establish a relationship. One place even quoted me 3,000 t-shirts at $2.60/shirt. After shipping my expense/shirt would be around $3. If I sold them for $17 I would double my profit/shirt.
The factories were nice: well-marked exits, well-lit, and well-ventilated. The factory wouldn’t be out of place in the USA. There was some minor fabric dust that accumulated in workers’ hair like cobwebs, but other than that, they seemed like decent places to work. The not so decent part is how much the people get paid – anywhere between $25 and $50 PER MONTH!
Sure, it’s cheaper to live in Bangladesh, but not that much cheaper. I met with workers, ate with them, took naps in their houses, I know that what they get paid isn’t enough.
But the situation isn’t as easy as saying the factories should pay them more. Yes, the owners are comparatively wealthy, but I suspect if they dispersed their wealth evenly among their employees, no one’s life would change that much. The owners feel the pinch too. Ten years ago they would have priced my shirt at over $5, double the price they quoted to me. Increased competition and arm-twisting by buyers have cut their profit/piece in half.
So who is responsible for the low wages the workers who make our underwear receive? No, seriously, I’m asking YOU. I don’t know.
Is it the Wal-Mart’s who demand the lower prices or is it the ultimate-consumer who sees a pair of “Jingle These” boxers in Wal-Mart and a similar pair in K-Mart for $2 less, which they ultimately purchase.
Economists refer to this international sourcing of products as the “Race to the Bottom.” Business will go wherever the price is the cheapest. So will the consumer. We are all on the race to the bottom.
The garment industry in Bangladesh did about $8 billion last year and is expected to double in the next 3 years. It is responsible for around 73% of Bangladeshi exports. If we decide that the workers aren’t paid well and we don’t buy products because they are made in Bangladesh and the industry collapses, what then? Millions won’t have jobs, including my friends from Fantasy Kingdom and Arifa.
This is the world we live in. It’s complex.
Who thought a pair of underwear could lead to so many questions?