Many apparel companies have been moving toward greater transparency and accountability for a while – unadvertised and unprovoked. It’s clear that change will not come overnight - but it will come.
By Sarah Coles
The collapse of the factory building in Bangladesh three weeks ago that killed more than 1,100 workers is a tragic reminder of what we in the Western world take for granted - access to fashionable and affordable clothes.
But while some might be quick to blame the garment industry, or government, or consumers themselves, it’s difficult to point fingers in such a complex situation. While the factory collapse in Bangladesh is considered to be the deadliest garment-factory accident in history, it begs the question of how we, as consumers and businesses, can stop this from happening again, and what we have learned from the terrible event.
The Role of Retailers: Leaving Doesn’t Solve The Problem
Bangladesh is the third-biggest exporter of clothes in the world, after China and Italy, and makes up 17 percent of its GDP from these exports. More than three-quarters of its total exports is clothing. There are 5,000 factories in the country accommodating 3.6 million garment workers. Retail is obviously a huge part of the country’s economy and forms the livelihood for many families.
Some companies like Disney, have pulled out of the country, stopping production of its branded goods in Bangladesh. (It’s important to note that according to Disney, only one percent of its branded products are made in Bangladesh.)
But will abandonment really solve the problem?
Companies like H&M have said they currently do not have plans to leave Bangladesh and have agreed to support a new plan to prevent fires and building collapses, prompting brands such as Zara (Inditex), Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger (PVH) to follow suit. The fashion industry has also promised to band together to work for change in the country – exactly the kind of leadership we need to make a real change in working conditions and wages for Bangladeshi workers.
Empower Workers To Flag Issues
Worker empowerment is always a top concern and with corruption rampant among auditors, the third leg of the supply chain mix - with factories hiding conditions or pressuring employees to answer questions favorably –, companies that utilize these factories often do not have a clear picture of what is happening - and without a direct connection are somewhat powerless to make changes.
Good World Solutions is working to improve the auditing process by providing that direct connection between companies and factory workers. In 2010, Good World Solutions piloted an initiative called Labor Link that pushes out short surveys to factory workers via mobile phones. The model seems to have worked and today, Labor Link is working with over 10 organizations, including Patagonia and Eileen Fisher to provide companies with more accurate information on factory conditions.
Further, Adidas just set up an anonymous hotline for workers to text any grievances or concerns directly to the company. With mobile phones becoming an accessible and widely used technology in developing countries, it’s probable that other companies may follow suit.
Smart Shoppers: Applaud Companies That Are Making Real Change
ThinkProgress recently reported that according to the Worker Rights Consortium, the average consumer would need to pay about 10 cents per article of clothing to cover the costs of upgrading Bangladesh factories (estimated at $1.5 billion to $3 billion over five years). With many companies starting to work harder than ever to improve factory conditions – and consumers protesting in wake of recent news - it would be smart business to favor higher wages to support the workers in Bangladesh and other countries.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition — formed in 2011 to create a sustainability and labor practice standard — has developed the Higg Index for companies to measure environmental issues. It is now expanding that to include social and labor impact areas.
And companies like H&M - who recently released all the names and addresses of its suppliers publicly - and Patagonia – who last year launched an interactive website to promote supply chain transparency - are setting the standards for the industry.
Yes, they're still a handful of companies. It’s clear that change will not come overnight - but it will come.
Many apparel companies have been moving toward greater transparency and accountability for a while – unadvertised and unprovoked. And while it’s tragic that such an accident had to occur, it will act as a key catalyst for change both in the way consumers make their purchasing decisions and how companies manage – and empower – every participant in their supplier relationships.