Now that most American and European retailers have signed on to plans to improve factory safety in Bangladesh, there seems to be a notion that the business world acted responsibly, more or less, following the factory building collapse that killed 1129 workers last April.
After all, as Bobbi Silten, senior VP for global responsibility at Gap said, “We may have two plans…but we have one shared purpose and that purpose is to improve worker safety in garment factories in Bangladesh.
We might even feel that the world is a bit of a better place now and hope we can get back to business as usual, aka buying cheap clothes from H&M, Walmart, Gap, Zara and other fast fashion retailers with little less guilt.
But is this really the case? Is fast fashion any more sustainable now due to the new safety plans? And how far are we really from the next tragedy? This might be a good time for a retrospective look at the events that took place after the latest tragedy in Bangladesh. Here are five lessons we can learn from them that might provide us with the answers we are looking for.
1. Businesses act incrementally, not systemically – “At the moment there’s a bias towards action, which is a good thing, but there’s a danger of that action being inevitably being about incremental change rather than some of the radical steps shifts and transformation that we require,” Peter Lacy, managing director at Accenture Sustainability Services explained last year in an interview with Jo Confino.
The response we saw to the tragedy in Bangladesh reflects this notion. While workers’ working conditions will probably be a bit better now, the supply chain they’re part of is still very unsustainable. For example, an article in the New York Times earlier this week explained how “Bangladesh’s garment and textile industries have contributed heavily to what experts describe as a water pollution disaster.”
The article described how in Savar, the place where the building collapsed, many factories do not have treatment plants or chose not to operate them in order to save on utility costs. As a result, “many of Savar’s canals or wetlands are now effectively retention ponds of untreated industrial waste.”
So, while we should appreciate the progress we are seeing, we need to remember that we still have a very dysfunctional system in sustainability terms.
As we wrote in May, H&M was reported to be reluctant at first about the accord. “Even after the Rana Plaza disaster, H&M required persuading,” Jyrki Raina, the general secretary for IndustriALL Global Union, who also negotiated the binding accord with H&M and other retailers, told the New York Times. “Unless they were really pushed,” he said, “we would not be where we are today.”
H&M is by no means a stranger to sustainability action and is even considered by many one of the leaders in the fashion industry. Yet, with all the innovation and responsibility the company demonstrated so far, it had trouble to be innovative and responsible when it seems to be out of its CSR comfort zone. To get there you had to have some arm twisting of stakeholders like IndustriALL or Avaaz that pressured the company to take this step. Without them I doubt if all of this would have happened.
3. The number of active stakeholders is not as important as their composition – We saw some very active stakeholder groups such as NGOs, labor unions and even media outlets playing an important role in pushing companies forward. At the same time, we saw stakeholders like investors, consumers and policy makers that seemed almost indifferent or at least didn’t show much willingness to take any sort of action.
The lesson I see here is not that small number of stakeholders can achieve only incremental changes. As Bill McKibben told Ira Glass on This American Life, “There couldn’t be more than two or three percent of Americans who actually were physically involved in the Civil Rights Movement…but watching those who were was enough to change the mood of the country.” So, small numbers of stakeholders can make a big difference.
It’s eventually about the composition of the stakeholders rather than their number – companies will make systemic changes when the stakeholders they find most important demand it. Only then will the mood change.
4. Looking for the Aspirationals – speaking about consumers, the tragedy in Bangladesh created an interesting test for Aspirationals. Remember this large consumer segment (37 percent worldwide) that a recent study identified and found they “want to reconcile their materialism with environmentalism”?
“Aspirationals represent the persuadable mainstream on the path to more sustainable behavior. They love to shop, are influenced by brands, yet aspire to be sustainable in their purchases and actions,” explained Raphael Bemporad, co-founder of BBMG.
Well, so far it seemed like the voice of the Aspirationals wasn’t heard much or at least not enough to generate systematic sustainable solutions. Yet, I wouldn’t write them off so fast – now, when the awareness to the downsides of fast fashion is much greater it is their real litmus test. If they wake up and demand change, we know the sustainable side in their identity won. If not, it means Aspirationals’ shopping side still has the upper hand.
5. The next tragedy is around the corner – sad as it is the accords signed by the companies make at best only the factories in Bangladesh safer.
What about the factories in Haiti, Cambodia, Pakistan and other countries with poor working conditions? Unfortunately they will probably have to wait until a tragedy will take place in their country in a hope that it will convince companies to take greater responsibility on their supply chain, just like they did in Bangladesh.
[Image Credit: Steve Rhodes]
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.