Avoiding Another Rana Plaza Will Take More Than Outrage

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Demonstrations in Belgium.

flickr / setca_bbtk under Creative Commons

Demonstrations in Belgium.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark —The Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh last year, generated an unprecedented media storm and has become a symbol of abysmal working conditions in countries with low production costs. Yet, more than a year after the tragedy, the safety of workers in the ready-made garments (RMG) sector is still questionable, and, without systematic changes in the governance of supply chains and consumer attitudes, it is likely to remain that way.

The fashion industry is characterized by downward price pressures, long and complex supply chains and a high level of seasonality, which make it challenging to significantly improve workers’ conditions without systematic change. But an enduring and self-evident first step would be to ensure that the buildings being worked in are structurally sound.

At the Copenhagan Fashion Summit, the largest industry event on sustainability, Alan Roberts, executive director of interntional operations for the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, detailed during the “One Year After Rana Plaza” panel how the accord bears a legally binding commitment to inspect the structural integrity of 1,600 factories in Bangladesh until the fall of 2015. Signatories include 166 fashion brands as recognizable as Inditex (Zara) and C&A.

The majority of American brands joined forces in a seperate and less demanding alliance for Bangladesh workers’ safety.

So far, 250 factories have been audited, with every inspection report published online and followed by a Collective Action Plan (CAP). The merit of the accord, said Roberts, lies “in the approach of transparency taken. For the first time, the industry is recognizing its problems and publishing them online, making them accessible for consumers.”

The CAPs pave the way for the development of factory infrastructure in the next five years, financed by the factories and, in some cases, facilitated by the brands themselves. The financing mechanisms are not presented in a clear manner by the accord. so there is a risk that the implementation will not be complete. Although it does aim to raise awareness about workers’ rights in factories, the accord does not include any provisions about raising social standards, including those regarding wages and working hours.

Andrew Morgan, maker of the garment production documentary “True Cost,” said, “Instead of more auditing, we should talk about solutions, such as long-term supplier-buyer contracts and brands taking responsibility of factories.”

But “even if a company releases its supply chain list, there is a possibility that the actual production is carried out by sub-suppliers,” added Søren Stig, senior project manager at the United Nations Office for Project Services. In that sense, “the biggest challenge is the multilevel supply chain system.”

Working conditions can be improved and audited efficiently by brands, but only if they have an accurate overview of who they are sourcing materials and labor from. And even then, their work would be far from over.

The Bangladeshi government, for instance, has increased the minimum wage by 77 percent, to $68 (U.S.) [per month], but “it is still nowhere near enough to sustain a family,” said Roberts. So companies would need to voluntarily commit to providing a living wage.

As a model in that realm, H&M’s head of sustainability, Helena Helmersson, offered promising plans for living wages, which would “allow workers to cover basic expenses and have their salaries reviewed on a yearly basis.”

Eco-fashion pioneer and consultant Livia Firth, on the other hand, said the whole model of outsourced fast-fashion production simply has to go. “If fast fashion did not exist, we would not be sitting in Copenhagen, discussing how to clean up the mess,” she said. (Firth, among others, is the co-founder of Fashion Revolution Day and the only keynote speaker at the summit who made the statement of turning her jacket inside out onstage as a gesture for more transparency in the business.)

Helmersson argued for the scale of the development impact her company has in Bangladesh. “I think that the story untold around Bangladesh is that of all the women whose lives are significantly improved through the work we provide for them.” Even so, H&M projects that it won’t be until 2018 when 850.000 workers of the company’s strategic suppliers will be payed a fair living wage.

Roberts echoed the development impact arguement: “The worst thing a customer can do is [boycott] the Bangladesh business. If you boycott their products, you are putting 4 to 5 million people and their families out of work.” At the same time, he added, consumers need to push companies for more ethical choices and salaries.

Jason Kibbey, director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, said the future will be all about that, noting that radical transparency will be the standard, where all sustainability information will be online in a comprehensible manner. “In the end, consumers will be tough on themselves and make the right choices,” he said.

Mobile technology is already an enabler. M&S, for instance, is piloting a mobile phone-enabled direct contact system with the workers for its suppliers in order to monitor working conditions more efficiently.

Given millennials’ penchant for technology, change can be driven forward toward a more transparent industry at a dizzying rate. At the summit, for instance, 120 international students and young professionals from top business and design schools announced their demand onstage for “garments which deliver trustworthy experiences.” Now it’s just a matter of making their plea an industry standard.

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