Protesters hold up a sign commemorating those killed in clothing factory tragedies in Bangladesh outside Wal-Mart Stores Inc. headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas June 5, 2013. Reuters/Rick Wilking
Nearly three months after a factory collapse stole the lives of 1,129 garment workers in Bangladesh—and, along with them, our peace of mind about what we wear—progress for Bangladesh’s factory workers has been slow at best. The New York Times has described just how “disorganized and haphazard,” and in some cases entirely ineffective, the process of inspecting the country’s factories has been thus far. And some of the biggest US retailers have refused to sign on to a legally binding factory safety accord.
Indeed, reading some of the reports, it’s easy to despair about what an ordinary shopper can do. It’s true that the mass-market clothing industry, as it exists now, is not at all transparent. It’s almost impossible to determine if what we wear is ethically made. And yet, despite all of the daunting challenges laid bare by Rana Plaza, there are ways consumers can have an impact, ranging from being conscious about which companies are making efforts to be more responsible, to adjusting our buying habits and patterns, to thinking about what it means to support domestically made clothes.
Also, thanks to Rana Plaza, we now know disturbing details about exactly how “big fashion” companies have been doing business. The story, briefly, goes like this: around the mid- to late aughts, when rapid changes in trends and ultra-low-priced fashion became a worldwide phenomenon, supply chains grew too fast and without proper investment in safety and workplace standards.
Case in point: just a month after the Rana Plaza collapse, Walmart—in a show of commitment to safety—released a list of more than 200 factories banned from producing its products in Bangladesh, saying those suppliers did not meet its list of workplace standards (Walmart is the second-largest buyer of garments from Bangladesh, after H&M). Less than a month later, ProPublica reported that two of Walmart’s so-called banned factories sent “massive shipments” to Walmart stores as recently as late May. The story crystallized an image of lumbering corporate fashion entities that, despite what they say, have little connection with and no control over their supply chains.
Still, some promising post–Rana Plaza measures have emerged. The Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh is an entry point for consumers looking to support decent workplaces with their dollars. This union-sponsored agreement dedicates funds to upgrade the infrastructure and safety equipment of factories throughout Bangladesh. Most important, it’s legally binding. More than seventy of the world’s largest brands—including many based in Europe, like H&M and Zara, and some US companies like PVH, Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch—have signed on.
However, US retail giants Gap, Walmart, Macy’s, Sears, Target, L.L. Bean and Kohl’s are among the seventeen companies that have shunned the deal in favor of a much weaker pact, called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Where the original plan holds retailers accountable for funding repairs and improvements, the Alliance requires Bangladesh’s factories to fix problems themselves (or pay back a loan for repairs). If the factories can’t or don’t get up to code, the Alliance’s retailers say they will simply cancel orders and cut ties. Some activists are taking to the streets to protest the retailers who have embraced the weaker plan. In late June, student-led demonstrations were held in front of Gap and Walmart stores in over twenty-five US cities as well as Britain, Canada, Australia and Japan. But it remains to be seen whether bad publicity will cost these brands more than they are saving with their deadly low-cost subcontracting practices.