The shocking tragedy of the Rana Plaza building collapse which killed some 380 factory workers in Bangladesh has led to some deep soul-searching in the fashion industry about where it sources its product.
There’s also inevitable talk about western consumers having to ask questions of themselves and the ethics of their purchasing decisions.
But if ever there was a cut-and-dried case for where corporate social responsibility should kick in – where companies should step up and show they are interested in principle as well as profit – this is it.
The reality is there’s no going back from the supply of cheap clothing from developing countries to western retail markets.
For a family battling to make ends meet and the kids need new long-sleeved tops or sweaters for the winter, the cheap $5 or $10 version in the chain store will beat the $30, locally-made boutique option 99 times out 100.
Consumers get a great deal out of this, but it’s a pretty damn good setup for retailers too. Consumers – and shareholders in retail companies – have every right to expect that what’s on the shelves isn’t coming at some terrible human cost.
ABC’s 730 program revealed last night that leading Australian retailer David Jones has been in contact with Mango, one of the brands whose items were made at the doomed facility. DJs has asked for an explanation of what happened and is seeking reassurances that Mango is doing everything it can to ensure the safety of the brand’s contracted workers in developing countries.
The full statement from David Jones was:
“As with all our other brands, the supply of goods by any vendor into our stores is subject to strict contractual obligations that the vendor must fully comply with all requisite labour and occupational health and safety standards in the production of goods sold at David Jones. We are currently in discussions with MANGO to ascertain how the situation arose and to satisfy ourselves that prior to receiving any MNG stock, all relevant occupational health and safety standards relating to the production of stock has been complied with.”
Other retailers questioned by 730 went to great lengths to talk about their strict policies around health and safety. You can read them here.
This horrifying tragedy is to fashion what the Foxconn revelations were to the tech world. Foxconn is the Chinese manufacturer that Apple uses to make its iPhones and iPads, which last year came into the spotlight because of concern over the exploitation of its workers – long hours, cramped living conditions, low pay, some factory deaths and a number of suicides.
Though the tragedies were not on the scale of this terrible incident at Rana Plaza, it still prompted a bout of soul searching about western consumerism. After which everyone continued buying Apple products.
(Apple stock has been taking a hit lately, sure, but not because of Foxconn. Last year’s social concerns about how it makes its products have given way to market concerns about what products Apple is going to make in the first place.)
Health and safety concerns in developing countries are unrecognisable from the OH&S concerns of comfortable office workers in Australia, where there might be concerns about a dangling cable connected to the flat-screen TV or a carelessly placed rubbish bin.
In developing countries health and safety concerns start, as has been so tragically illustrated, with whether the building is going to stay standing.
DJs putting some questions to Mango is a good step. The investigation into this tragedy should determine whether Mango’s stock appears on DJ’s shelves and if the facts warrant it, DJs shouldn’t hesitate in axing the Mango deal and to hell with dashing the hopes of some expectant shoppers.
But more broadly this is an opportunity for business to show that CSR means something beyond value statements about “giving back to the community” and chipping in to local arts programs.
Consumers and shareholders should expect the protection of workers in developing countries to be vigorously pursued by retailers whose margins benefit from their suppliers’ cheap goods. And the policies need the right backup in the form of properly-resourced investigations and inspections of working facilities that are transparently shared with the market.
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