In recent weeks, Americans’ attention focused on the Boston bombings, blizzards, floods and wild fires and, if their eyes looked overseas, North Korea’s threats and the Syrian civil war catastrophe.
But the April 25 collapse of a Bangladesh textile factory — where at least 5,000 people worked on multiple levels for several owners — killed 800 and the count keeps rising. This is a crisis. There are earthquakes and hurricanes that kill far fewer than 800.
Why is this a crisis? Why should we care, beyond the general sympathy humans share for sudden, man-made, ferocious loss of life? Because chances are, your closets and drawers are filled with clothes made under conditions similar to those that led to this collapse.
According to the Los Angeles Times: The tragedy has focused a harsh spotlight on American companies cited as customers of the facility, including Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney. Some have publicly stated that they would consider updating their supply chain safety policies.
The Times quoted a Southern California-based clothing manufacturer’s CEO, Dov Charney:
“In Bangladesh, the problem with these factories is that they’re only given contracts on a seasonal or order-by-order basis,” he said. “There’s so much pressure to perform, some of the working conditions are outrageous, almost unbelievable. It has completely stripped the human element from the brands.”
Often, he said, the American apparel behemoths contracting with factories in developing countries don’t allow for delays, “even acts of God.”
“The buyer has no view of what is happening on the other side,” Charney said. “It’s such a blind, desensitized way of making clothing.”
This is a capital C crisis. While the average American consumer does not often stop to think where and under what working conditions his or her shirt or pants are made, the deaths of more than 800 people and injuries, often severe, to another 2,500 has to start attracting notice. Especially when social media starts spreading the word.
As The Wall Street Journal reported:
Before the Rana Plaza building crumbled last week … retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Levi Strauss & Co. were backing away from factories run by multiple tenants in buildings erected several stories high. Safety experts say those buildings pose bigger risks than low-slung factories with single tenants.
The death toll raises questions about why those factories continued to attract business from other apparel companies, and has revived a debate within the industry about the safety of such facilities. Sears Holdings Corp., which hasn’t been linked to clothes made at Rana Plaza, said it is re-examining the dangers posed by multilevel factories or factories operated by multiple owners.
The Walt Disney Co., the world’s largest licenser, told licensees in March that the company could no longer manufacture its branded merchandise in Bangladesh. Other retailers, such as Target Corp. and Nike Inc. have also said they have reduced the number of factories they use in Bangladesh, according to the Journal.
Clearly there is a risk-reward equation at work here. If American manufacturers use Bangladeshi garment factories, they can produce, market and sell more profitable clothing. But if that comes at the cost of hundreds of lives, those companies face greater criticism and probably new routes to market.
So far, there hasn’t been much outrage expressed either by some of these giant companies, or by the average American consumer. These two are linked. Pressure, however, may grow with the death toll.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.