Three weeks after the collapse of an eight-storey clothing factory in Bangladesh cost the lives of – for now – more than 1,200 textile workers, thirty major fashion retailers have signed a charter that should actively improve security in Bengal factories. “A worldwide breakthrough in textile retail”, say the founders of the project. Because of the drama questions are also being asked of working conditions in a broader perspective.
Biggest disaster since 1984
The disaster in Dhaka is probably the biggest industrial accident since the Union Carbide catastrophe in Bhopal, India about thirty years ago. With another incident in Dhaka, costing eight lives, worldwide attention was drawn to the lack of safety regulations in the country.
Reactions were not far behind: in Sweden a petition was started almost immediately by online campaign network Avaaz. In name of the 800,000 people who signed the petition, an ad was distributed, asking the CEO of H&M Karl Johan-Persson to sign the Bengal safety pact for the protection of workers.
Successfully, because it was the Swedish fashion retailer that buckled first – even though the chain emphasizes it did not work with the factory – and signed an accord about fire safety and building safety in Bengal textile factories.
World’s largest brands sign charter
Their example was quickly followed: by the deadline of midnight on Wednesday 15 May IndustriALL Global Union, the driving force behind the accord, got thirty more multinationals to sign the charter.
The complete list of participating retailers is as followed (for now): H&M, Inditex, C&A, PVH, Tchibo, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Primark, El Corte Inglés, jbc, Mango, Carrefour, KiK, Helly Hansen, G-Star, Aldi, New Look, Mothercare, Loblaws, Sainsbury's, Benetton, N Brown Group, Stockmann, WE Europe, Esprit, Rewe, Next, Lidl, Hess Natur, Switcher en Abercrombie&Fitch.
The most notable absentees are from the US: the world’s biggest retailer Walmart and the number one in the American fashion industry, Gap. Walmart says it can not agree with the charter at the moment, but it promises to do inspections at its subcontractors in Bangladesh and to publish the results of these inspections.
Retailers have to pay renovation costs
What the impact of the agreement will be, is yet to be seen, but NGO’s are saying it is a strong signal and a unique breakthrough for the sector. The charter is binding for a period of five year and during that period there will be independent inspections of buildings, coupled with the obligation to intervene in case of danger. Completely new is the fact that retailers will have to pay for possible renovations.
Furthermore the document recognises the right to form unions to inform workers about their rights and their safety. “This accord is absolutely historic”, said Ben Vanpeperstraete of Clean Clothes Campaign earlier this week.
“Coalition of the willing”
But the battle is not over yet: not a word is said about the low wages of textile workers and most of the other working conditions. The charter also only focuses on Bangladesh.
That is understandable, seeing as the textile industry in Bangladesh is worth a turnover of no less than fifteen billion euro, eighty percent of the total Bengal export. A fire in a shoe factory in Cambodia, costing at least three lives, however showed that the problems are more wide spread.
Sustainability and innovation consultant Stefaan Vandist of Studio Spark admits there is a danger of it being an empty gesture, but at the same time he sees a clear statement for more cooperation in the sector: “It is an important first step for the fashion business. A charter alone does not mean that much, but it is crucial that for the first time big players are coming together to talk about sustainability and are creating a platform for it.”
According to Vandist it is important that a “coalition of the willing” is forming: a group of retailers that realises they can make a difference and lead competitors by focusing on sustainability. “If there is no unified platform, nobody feels responsible. They will just think ‘all others do it, so what can I alone change?’.”
Change of mentality?
Other sectors, especially the food sector, have a big lead in that respect. A good example according to Stefaan Vandist is The Sustainability Consortium, where big names of the food industry (among other Walmart and Delhaize) come together to share insights and ‘best practices’ about sustainability.
The consumer has known fair trade products for a long time and likes to know where his fruit, vegetables and meat originated, under which conditions they were produce and if they are ecological. Those questions are now also being asked about clothes.
“It is only when several players are prepared to break down the walls around their supply chain to be transparent – not in the least with respect to each other – that progress will be made. In food retail they understood it is stupid to try and tackle these difficult issues alone, when you can easily exchange insights with others that are faced by the same challenges”, says Vandist.
The food sector has already reaped the benefits: today supermarkets can say that green consumers, who are specifically looking for organic and honest products, are also their customers. It is a growing group they would have otherwise lost.
Sustainability is trendy
Sustainability is also trendy, says Vandist: “Today trend watchers like to talk about the ‘neo-consumer’ as opposed to the ‘traditional consumer’. The traditional consumer wants value for money, while the neo-consumer warms to authentic and superior stories, when talking about values, quality and intelligent design. That new consumer is still underappreciated by the market.”
There are however retailers who understand this: Belgian market leader in lingerie Van de Velde has always linked economic growth to ethics. The underwear producer not only works on reducing waste and ecology, but it also focuses on the social aspects of employment and production.
Some smaller players also focus on the more aware consumer: Belgian designer Bruno Pieters for example, last year launched the label and website ‘Honest By’, where he gives complete transparency about each piece of clothing, by giving detailed product information.
That way the customer knows that a T-shirt of 250 euro takes 33 minutes of cutting, 145 minutes of sowing and 10 minutes of ironing in a Belgian atelier. The finishing touches took ten minutes in a Slovenian factory, the safety pin cost one cent and the transport almost eight euro.
Retailers long refused to publish detailed information, “because of its complexity”. When making a sweater in Italy it may be that yarn, wool and paint from other countries are used. Another reason is the fact that safety of workshops is expensive and that cheap clothing, no matter how and where it is made, still sells very well.
Recent research at McDonough School of Business in Georgetown showed that the complexity of the chain of production makes it easier for consumers to justify bad working conditions, because they are far removed from that reality. The same study showed that consumers are very worried about the working conditions of those workers, until they go to buy shoes. At that moment it did not matter in what conditions the shoes were made, when deciding which ones to buy.
From niche to necessity
“We do see that sustainability is not much of a factor in the fashion segment when buying products”, but Stefaan Vandist also says that big and small brands such as Patagonia, Kuyuchi or C&A do get recognised for their leading role and that this leads to higher brand fidelity and a strong sense of ‘ambassadorship’.
It is also true that retailers who focus explicitly on sustainability are still a niche sector. The products on offer are still too expensive and too limited to have an impact on a wider scale.
“A ‘coalition of the willing’ could cause a turnaround, give a wider scale and form an opportunity to create new and inspiring desired images, where consumers looking for diversity can connect with”, says Vandist. “This will create a new image of the ‘good’ versus the ‘bad’ company, a new ‘elegant’ versus ‘tacky’ and sustainability will be equal to progressiveness, quality and respect.”
Furthermore we must not forget that production countries are the consumption markets of tomorrow. For them these dramas are not far removed from their world, so if big fashion chains want to tap into that massive pool of new customers, they have every reason to clean up their act.