The tragic collapse of the garment factory building in Bangladesh has left the world in shock. What was most disturbing was that the day before the collapse cracks were detected in the foundation, but the manager ordered employees to come to work the next day anyway. After three weeks of digging bodies out of the rubble, the death toll stands at 1,127. If this incident does not awaken the consciences of consumers about global labor standards, what will?
The pressure on producers to make greater profits tends to drive production to places with lower wages and more hazardous working conditions. And governments in need of export revenue tend to look the other way when it comes to enforcing regulation. There were two major factory fires in Bangladesh this past November. In one of them 117 people died. That factory had been warned twice on fire safety regulations. According to Mehedi Ansary, a professor of civil engineering with the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, about 60% of the factory buildings in Bangladesh are at risk of collapse. The wage rates for garment factory workers in Bangladesh are the lowest in the world--between 10 and 30 cents an hour. Unfortunately, the global retailers have always taken a reactionary rather than a proactive approach to factory fires and collapses. In the fallout of the tragedy, retailers are scrambling in fear, to shift their production to other low-cost countries, like India and Nicaragua. In Call and Response, a 2008 documentary about human trafficking, the actress Ashley Judd said, "I don't want to wear someone else's sorrow." For obvious good reasons, more and more consumers are starting to think about where their products are made and under what working conditions. Congressman George Miller of California has said that shoppers are, "telling us in every way that they don't believe the low prices of the garments they buy should be subsidized by young women dying on the job." Conscious, ethical consumerism is trending upwards.
In the wake of the tragedy, retailers have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those who are furthest removed from the glitz and glamour of the stores that carry the very products they make. As the co-founder of a non-profit organization (www.buyherbagnotherbody.com) that creates ethical sourcing opportunities, I have spent time in developing countries where women and children are prone to exploitation, whether its being sold for sex or being forced to work without pay, the reality is they are stripped away of their dignity, self worth and full potential. However, with the right investment - targeted vocational training, life skill development and mentorship, they thrive. Take Renu for example, in only three months after basic training, she began sending her daughters to school because she saw impact training had on her livelihood. This is a region in India where girls are not permitted to go to school and forced to marry as young as age 12 years. Other women followed her lead and began asking for support in sending their girls to school. I don not need to reiterate the importance of education and this community will be in a better place 10 years from now because their girls are educated.
Comparatively, it takes little input for corporations to make an immense social impact in the lives women and children living in the poorest and remotest part of the world. Here are three practical steps retailers can take to marry corporate social responsibility with business strategy; after all, they should be symbiotic.
1. Eliminate the mentality that "what happens overseas stays overseas." It is not realistic. In a today's society information is transmitted around the world at the speed of light. Consumers will find out and you will lose them, as well as your brand equity.
2. Source ethically from more fair trade certified organizations and companies. Some retailers are even talking about developing ethical manufacturing facilities. Depending on the complexity of your product, you might not be able to find a supplier immediately but with the right partnership, you will be able to meet all of your sourcing needs and not be ashamed when consumers asks about the conditions in which your products are made. Even Walmart is taking active measures with their Empowering Women Together campaign and commitment to source $20 billion from minority women owned businesses and vulnerable groups of women.
3. Partnerships are critical and it is understood that companies have to appease the shareholders. That is why you should look partner with non-profit organizations to implement the programs and governmental agencies to foster constructive policies.
The bottom line is that from the top down, human beings have to be appreciated and not depreciated. Just read the headlines today and it makes you frightened where we are heading - a society where human beings are literally caged in the four walls of a factory. Retailers have the opportunity break the viscous cycle of abuse and change a community. One company that understands this concept is Eileen Fisher and it is a business model worth exploring. Her unique business model underscores the company's commitment to women and importance of feeling good about how workers in their factories are treated - ethically and humanely. More companies should follow Eileen's lead. This model works and it all started with her humble beginnings of launching the company with $350 in her pocket over 50 years ago. Now her company reaches over $300 million in revenue, annually. Treating employees humanely should not be a unique business model but a model woven into the fabric of all companies, both large and small.