Bangladeshi makers. Photo by BSR.

A hundred years ago, a clothing factory in New York City’s thriving garment district caught on fire. Young Chinese and Jewish women trapped inside the factory’s locked doors tried valiantly to get out, hurtling themselves against the iron bars. 146 of them died that day at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.

On April 24th, 2013, a similarly tragic scene unfolded at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. A factory complex collapsed killing 1,129 workers.

The images from these two horrific industrial disasters are startlingly similar – young women, who labored long hard hours to make a honest living, meeting a terrible, untimely, and senseless death. It seems we have learned nothing in a hundred years.

The story of our clothes, shoes and technology is tied to the lives of these young women and men. In a quest for cheap, fast, and disposable stuff, we have brands chasing prices around the world and manufacturers setting up factories where wages are low – Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti – to bring a flow of cheap products quickly back to us.

There is a school of thought that if we just brought back these jobs to the developed world we would have better and safer jobs and feel good about our insatiable demands for more and more stuff. The real story is a lot more complex.

Makers need manufacturing jobs. But these jobs must preserve their well-being.

In most developing countries, manufacturing jobs are the best step out of poverty, particularly for young women. In the absence of these jobs they are forced to live in abject poverty either farming or taking on more precarious work in urban slums. They need manufacturing jobs, but they also need the jobs to be safe and preserve their well-being.

We need to think about where our stuff comes from.

Today, supply chains are vast and spread out. Cotton is turned to fabric in Pakistan, cut and sewn in China with buttons and zips flying in from Germany. All put together and shipped back as a cheap, on-trend blouse in the United States.

And we are disconnected.

The designer thinking about the blouse is disconnected from the sourcing exec who is worried about the price and quality and is even further removed from the young women and men sitting in Haiti or Pakistan stitching a collar. By the time we get the blouse, we have no connection whatsoever to the hundred pairs of hands that have touched it along the way. We have no idea how much human effort has gone into it.

Yet our shopping behavior has a very direct connection to the makers of our stuff.

When we hunt for rock bottom prices, we signal that it is ok to squeeze her wages.

When we want disposable instead of durable clothes, we are saying its ok to make her work a late night shift to change that color on the button, and be harassed as she walks home in the dark.

When we don’t ask about the makers, the supply chain assumes we don’t care.

And so the lives of the people behind our stuff remains precarious a 100 years later. At Remake we are focused on rebuilding these broken links in global supply chains. We want you to hear, see and meet the people who make our stuff.

So the designer can think about them when dreaming up the next blouse. And we as shoppers can use our voice and dollars to make their lives safer and better.

Together we can change this 100 year old story.

Come learn, share and let’s remake the story of how our stuff is made.

Ayesha Barenblat
Ayesha is a social entrepreneur with a passion for building sustainable supply chains that respect people and our planet. Ayesha is passionate about where things come from, who made them and what their lives are like. She has spent the last decade working with brands, governments, and nonprofits to improve the lives of makers in global supply chains.