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Helping Bangladesh: Are brands doing their bit?

What followed soon after the collapse of the Rana Plaza was brands denying their connection to their labels found amidst the rubble.

Judgments befell global brands for a second time in a span of a year, when a seemingly preventable disaster such as the recent collapse of the eight-story building in Bangladesh occurred.

While some were quick to acknowledge their part and vowed to help, others cut ties and threatened to stop business altogether.

As Bangladeshi by birth and also as an everyday consumer, the reluctance of brands to help the local government hit close to home for me.

The Rana Plaza collapsed on April 24 and killed over a thousand people. If that number does not seem grave enough, let me put it in perspective, it’s a third of the number of people who lost their lives in the 9/11 crash.

While we rightfully mourned the loss of innocent lives for 9/11 for months, the world seems to have moved on from the crash of Rana Plaza building in merely a month.

Quick to respond that none of its clothes were produced at the collapsed Rana Plaza site, European apparel brand H&M, one of Bangladesh’s largest producer, signed an agreement with the government promising independent inspections for all factories and financial aid to improve factory safety.

Soon after, Inditex (owner of the Zara chain), Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Benetton, Mango and Marks & Spencer also signed on the legally binding plan to help working conditions in Bangladesh.

The agreement were to make sure that the retailers help pay for improvements for safety conditions and puts in place changes regarding severance payments, welfare fund payments, banking standards and management practices.

“With this commitment we can now influence even more in this issue,” Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability for H&M, said in a statement on the corporate site.

While damage has been done, these brands are taking steps to ensure such preventable disasters will in the future be prevented. Successful or not, only time will tell.

Yet, what I cannot fathom are the rumored talks happening amongst North American brands to come up with their own safety regulations. Not only that, Walmart has repeatedly denied allegations of its products coming from Rana Plaza, despite documents being uncovered of its transactions with the collapsed factory.

While I doubt anyone is putting the sole blame on the brands for the catastrophe, what brands really need to do is stop the denial, own up and get their wheels turning for such a disaster to not strike again.

Unfortunately, despite being implicated for the second time in less than six months, Walmart refuses to sign the documents for the betterment of its factory workers. In a statement explaining its move, Walmart said:

” [..] Walmart announced that it will conduct in-depth safety inspections at 100 percent of the factories in Bangladesh that produce goods for the retailer, require remediation as necessary, and increase transparency by making the results available to the public.  This plan will help set a new standard for the safety of factories, the quality of safety inspections, and transparency in Bangladesh.”

However, it added that it is not in a position to sign the “IndustriALL accord at this time.”

“Walmart believes its safety plan meets or exceeds the IndustriALL proposal, and will get results more quickly,” it said.

While time is needed to see if its tactics will prove to be a successful, it is worth keeping in mind that just six months ago Walmart vowed to do the same following a factory fire. The retailer skived away from safety agreement at that point, claiming it will to make improvements to its supplier safety structure independently.

Walmart turned down the safety agreement that was panned out, citing a 6% to 10% increase in cost per garment as its reason. According toThe Wall Street Journal , if it did join the pact this time around, the current agreement will cost each company a maximum of US$2.5 million over the five-year period of the agreement. While this might seem like a hefty price for the retailer, it’s a rather a nifty one from the eye of the consumer.

Meanwhile, the fire sparked The Walt Disney company to pull out in March this year fully.

Gap, Target, JCPenney and Sears are also several other North American brands that have refused to sign the agreement.

Japanese retail giant Uniqlo has also shun away from the clause instead stating that it will do what it can on its own terms. It also has no timeline set as to when it will sign these papers. IndustriALL’s Bangladesh affiliate the National Garment Worker Federation have fittingly criticised Uniqlo for its delay in signing the papers.

While the jury’s still out on the future of the garments sector in Bangladesh, brands should keep in mind that “Made in Bangladesh” is not a label to be fearful of but rather a project which they should to be proud of.

While we watch anxiously the future of the market, I vow my wardrobe will remain void of any Uniqlo or Gap products.

(Photo courtesy: http://www.demotix.com)

 
Rezwana Manjur
Regional Editor
Marketing Magazine Singapore
Rezwana Manjur, a true blue city girl and complete social animal, spends half her time sifting through advertising scandals, and the other half testing out brands' retail marketing strategies at the mall. She enjoys traveling and fantasising over the charming lads on hit TV show Mad Men. Most weekends, she turns nocturnal, except when brunch comes into play.

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