Shopping After a Factory Fire

FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2012 file photo, Bangladeshi firefighters battle a fire at a garment factory in the Savar neighborhoo
FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2012 file photo, Bangladeshi firefighters battle a fire at a garment factory in the Savar neighborhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh. About a year before the fire, which killed 112 people, executives from Wal-Mart, Gap and other big clothing companies met nearby in the country's capital to discuss a legally binding contract that would govern safety inspections. But after a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, got up and said the proposal wasn't "financially feasible," the effort quickly lost momentum. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad) (AP Photo/Hasan Raza, File)

Squeezed between the news reports of Black Friday weekend, when U.S. consumers spent more than $59 billion dollars, and a Cyber Monday that was the busiest online shopping day ever, came the tragic news of yet another horrible fire in a garment factory just outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. Watching and listening to the almost incessant coverage of the spending power and ingenuity of consumers and the predictions of different retailers about the expected success of their various approaches to the opening of the holiday season all faded to a blur when the news of the factory fire in Tazreen Fashions was announced.

I recalled almost instantly the fires that had occurred in recent years in the garment sector in Bangladesh that have claimed the lives of more than 500 hundred since 2006 and I remembered the opportunities that I have had to look at many of these factories in the Ashulia industrial sector when driving north out of Dhaka. My mind was filled immediately with images of the hundreds and thousands of young people, mostly women, that I had witnessed flowing in and out of different factory locations.

The details of this story contained a list with an all too familiar ring; ground floor exits blocked by the flames where the fire broke out; inadequate roads so that responders could get access to the factory; crammed stairwells with people crushed together; supervisors giving out contradictory instructions to workers; failed safety inspections as recent as 2011 and parents searching for children, spouses looking for their partners and siblings. The work of miscreants was also an early report from public security officials.

Government officials promised a thorough investigation and the company's who were thought to be supplied by the factory immediately rushed to put fact finding teams together to get to the bottom of their involvement. Before three days had passed senior management personnel at the factory were shown standing before a court of law and some of the private companies provided further details about the nature of their relationship with the factory and how it should not have been included in their supply chain.

The Advent/Christmas consumer centric season only serves to shine a spotlight on many of the imbalances, inequities, immoral and unjust situations, realities and challenges that we face anytime that purchases ranging from basic food, clothing and footwear items to more durable household and convenience products are contemplated and completed. Where and how was it made? Was there child or forced labor involved? Were the workers fairly compensated and were the working conditions safe and secure? These are among the checklist of questions that many responsible consumers must wrestle with.

While much has been accomplished to answer these questions the fire in Dhaka is a stark reminder that there is still much more to be done. Codes of conduct, human rights principles, safety systems and business models need to be analyzed and improved. Monitoring and evaluation tools that have been created need to be continuously improved and third party verified reports need to be closely reviewed.

Many companies in the retail space have got the message. Their customers, stakeholders and shareowners expect them to establish programs and processes to reduce and eliminate all human rights abuses and to verify that their employees are treated fairly and adequately compensated. In addition they have high expectations concerning the ways in which any corporate activities impact the environment.

From the days of the production of bolts of cotton in the mills in Lowell Mass., from where I write this blog, to the numerous garment producing sites across the world, like the factory in Bangladesh, the seemingly intractable nature of the the questions that this production cycle poses, continue. The migrating maneuver of scouring the globe for the cheapest raw materials and the lowest labor costs has contributed consistently to that conundrum. The promise and delivery of low prices by manufacturers and retailers has ensnared us all and become a fixture in nearly all of our commercial transactions.

For too long it was next to impossible to follow the trail of the mass production of even the largest and most durable items. That no longer is the case and consumers are no longer powerless pawns in the midst of this very arbitrary and sometimes destructive. Labeling codes, for instance, have come a long way in providing details about the location and time of production that can also trace supplier and raw material sources. The Internet and now the proliferation of social media sites are also providing new sources and tools for investigation. The biblical caution that there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed comes to mind.

The loss, the grief, the pain and the suffering associated with the fire in Ashulia will not easily be relieved. The hopes and dreams of spouses, children and parents who lie devastated in the burnout factory floors cannot ever be revived. The commitment of consumers and stakeholders to a more deliberate and sustained demand for safe working conditions and wage levels that do not require excessive overtime and working conditions can at a very minimum send a clear message of solidarity to factory workers and communities everywhere.