Monday, May 13, 2013

Bangladesh and Corporate Social Responsibility


In the three weeks since an eight-story garment factory building in Bangladesh collapsed and entombed more than 1,100 workers, there have been lots of media reports about the responsibility of American and European retailers and brand name companies to be more proactive in monitoring and demanding greater safety in the factories that inexpensively produce goods to be sold throughout the world at prices that would be far beyond the reach of the women and men who make them for an average monthly wage of just $37.  

The scramble is on. The scramble to avoid the appearance of insensitivity. Retailers and their brand name suppliers are scrambling to distance themselves from multiple tragedies in Bangladesh and Pakistan, even as worker-advocates press them to force their foreign manufacturers to be more conscious of safety and living wage measures (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/11/business/global/clothing-retailers-pressed-on-bangladesh-factory-safety.html?ref=business&_r=0). 

They don’t want their good names sullied by horrific misfortunes half a world away. Yet, like our politicians who often kick the can down the road rather than tackle controversial issues such as social security or tax reform, the retail community rarely takes decisive action. My 30-plus years covering the industry, reinforced by my reporter’s sensibilities, make me a cynic. Sadly, my feelings can be summed up by the last paragraph in The NY Times story linked above: 

“Kellie A. McElhaney, an expert on corporate social responsibility at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, predicted that these pressures would hardly sway the companies. ‘They are feeling a lot of pressure, but it’s not coming from consumers. It’s coming from N.G.O.’s,’ she said, referring to nongovernment organizations. ‘They’re not feeling it in the marketplace. I believe they’re going to do the bare minimum. The N.G.O.’s need to make more consumers aware of this.’”  

Here’s why I’m a cynic: Perhaps 10 to 15 years ago my magazine co-produced a conference called Making It Right. We worked with several corporate social responsibility NGOs to raise awareness about the sordid conditions many foreign workers were forced to toil under as they prepared apparel, sporting goods and other products Americans eagerly consumed because they were less expensive than they would be if U.S. workers produced them, or if higher wages were provided to the populations in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, China or any of the other Third World countries exploited for their cheap labor. Meeting at the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to plan the event, our conference advisory board had representatives from Gap, J.C. Penney and other retailers. Held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City, the conference attracted several hundred industry attendees. It was a thematic success, but little of any progress was made.

My takeaway from that conference was that price was the overwhelming driving force behind corporate decisions where sourcing would originate. For a few scant pennies per item, manufacturing contracts would shift from one country to another. Bangladesh became the second largest apparel producer in the world, behind China. If tragedies persist, and they surely will, the result most likely will not be safer standards or higher wages in that impoverished country. Rather, the people of Bangladesh, who rely on the garment industry for much of their economy, will be hurt by the desertion of apparel contracts as retailers and brand name companies migrate production to countries with low wages and labor conditions not (yet) under the media spotlight.

Though there have been some reports consumers are becoming more conscious of where and how their purchases are produced, I’m not optimistic there will be a tidal wave of change. I don’t profess to be any better than the next person. I’d rather spend less on everything I buy, assuming the quality is comparable. But I do believe retailers, especially large companies like H&M, Wal-Mart, Target, Nike, Gap, and their important suppliers, such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, can demand more accountability from their overseas factories, even to the point where they underwrite safety improvements. The few pennies more each of us in America and Europe would pay to prevent catastrophes would hardly impact our way of life. But it would go a long way into assuring a better life, maybe even continued life, for those faceless workers who make our lives easier and more fashionable.

   

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