Tragedies in Bangladesh, including a deadly fire last night in Dhaka, have given new momentum to British campaigns to improve conditions at foreign factories that supply domestic retailers.
A new tragedy at a Bangladesh plant producing garments for a range of Western companies heaped new pressure on brands already reeling from last month's fatal collapse of a factory complex in the south Asian country.
A Dhaka factory belonging to Tung Hai Sweater Ltd. caught fire on Wednesday night, killing at least eight people and deepening a debate over factory safety standards that has been particularly felt in Britain – whose main street serves as a launch pad into Europe for many global retailers and where the appetite of shoppers for so-called fast fashion appears to have waned little despite years of austerity.
Even before the latest tragedy, many campaigners had viewed last month's disaster, in which more than 900 people died, as a game-changer that could facilitate key developments as early as this month in terms of how fashion retailers operate in countries such as Bangladesh.
“The number of people who have joined us or engaged with us on social media has been massive over the last couple of weeks,” says Sam Maher of Labour Behind the Labour, the UK platform for the Clean Clothes Campaign, an international alliance of labor unions and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Importantly, a process of pressing Western companies to sign a comprehensive fire and building safety agreement in Bangladesh had already been under way before the April 24 collapse of the illegally constructed, eight-story Rana Plaza in Dhaka.
The public “glare” that resulted from the tragedy has removed a sense that this process was dragging or being resisted, says Mr. Maher, who expects a number of firms to sign on to an agreement in the next few couple of weeks.
Leading Western brands that were being supplied from the complex included including Primark, Matalan, Mango, and Benetton. In the wake of the collapse, it was the response of British-owned Primark that made particular headlines, when the company pledged to compensate victims and called on other companies to do likewise.
"We are fully aware of our responsibility. We urge these other retailers to come forward and offer assistance," the company said in a statement.
On building and fire safety, it pledged to work with NGOs, other retailers, and unions to agree, and to monitor “an effective methodology to assess structural integrity which can then be universally adopted.”
Some commentators are less optimistic about how fast change will happen.
In some ways, companies like Primark have been spared the headlines that could have been much worse, says Jeffery Bray, a lecturer in marketing and consumer behavior at Bournemouth University, who has researched ethics in consumer decisionmaking and worked in UK retail.
He also suggests that average clothing shoppers have not particularly engaged with the story, and even if they have been, a sufficient supply of ethical alternatives or the means for them to truly discern the provenance of their clothing does not exist.
Instead, he views events in Bangladesh as part of a gradual shift which was leading to retailers demanding higher standards and better conditions throughout their supply chain.
While issues around sweatshops have had a high profile in the West for some time, he says that the clothing industry embraced globalization in 2004, when the global agreement that imposed quotas on the amount developing countries could export to developed countries was abolished.
“Over the last 10 years, there has been in a sense a race to the bottom in terms of rates of pay, and resulting issues around sweatshop-type manufacturing environments,” he says. “But now that that race to the bottom has settled down a little bit, we will now, in my view, see a gradual raising of standards as retailers work together with NGOs and governments and individual factories. Because while, in the short term, the cheapest way to produce clothing is to pay people less, in the longer term the cheapest way to produce clothing is to invest in factories and higher standards to enable people to be more productive. I think that shift will start now.”
That’s not to say that campaign groups have been irrelevant. Far from it, adds Dr. Bray, who says they have been important in terms of those that have lobbied and sought to push issues into the Western media’s spotlight, and others who have focused on working behind the scenes in producer nations.
Among the former is the Britain-based antipoverty charity, War on Want, which has carried out intensive work since 2006 focusing on the supply chain from Bangladesh to the UK, including the role of Western supermarket chains that have also moved into the discount clothing industry.
It is currently promoting a petition launched on the Change.org website by Bangladesh’s National Garment Workers’ Federation, which calls on retailers to pay compensation for full loss of earnings to the families of all workers killed or injured in the collapse of the building.
While public consciousness of the ethical debate about the sourcing of their clothing has been ratcheting up since the 1990s, the latest tragedy in Bangladesh has really “hit home,” according to Murray Worthy, a campaigner at the charity.
“There does seem signs of quite serious engagement from the brands,” he says.
“Also, we saw Primark come forward so quickly and promise to pay compensation and it’s very rare for a company to act so quickly. So I think there is a real sense that companies feel this is not one they can sweep under the carpet.”