The factory collapse that took the lives of more than 380 people last week has again swung a spotlight on retail supply chains.
The factory collapse that took the lives of more than 380 people last week has again swung a spotlight on retail supply chains. But the inevitable backlash against fast fashion and economic globalisation are in danger of derailing the long-term solutions needed to eradicate these sorts of tragedies.
Investigators are still searching for answers among the rubble. What is clear is that brands such as Primark, Bonmarché and Joe Fresh were among those sourcing from the eight-storey building. But it is also apparent other Western retail brands are unable to confirm whether any of their clothes originated there - another reminder of the complex nature of many retail supply chains.
Quite rightly, the retail industry is being scrutinised for its part in the disaster. But the concern should be whether the questions being asked are the right ones: in particular whether retailers should continue to source from Bangladesh at all, but also the extent to which cheap fashion is costing lives in the developing world.
These challenges, although a predictable response, neither reflect the complexity of the situation nor will they deliver on the needs of a Bangladeshi workforce that should be able to benefit from economic development without fearing for their lives at work.
Ready-made garments make up 80% of all Bangladesh’s exports, totalling more than $15bn (£9.63bn) in the 2012-13 financial year. Globalisation and the hunt for cheaper labour have delivered clear economic benefits for the country and the withdrawal of retailers now would have disastrous consequences, wiping out the undoubted social progress the sector has delivered.
Moreover, there is a danger to see this as a ‘Primark problem’ that draws a line of cause and effect between the value sector, its focus on margins and the dead bodies in Dhaka. This ignores the fact that mid-market Benetton had links to a factory in the building and sidesteps the myriad political, social and infrastructural faults that so terribly conspired to bring that building crashing down.
Of course the retail industry must do more. It can leverage technology to better understand its supply chain; retailers are already discussing the means needed to audit the buildings they source from; and pressure must increase on suppliers to conform to minimum welfare standards, with a zero tolerance of failure.
But there are no short-term fixes and the sustainable answers will be found far beyond what you pay for a T-shirt on the UK high street.
Primark 'deeply shocked' by fatal Bangladesh building collapse
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Comment: Bangladeshi tragedy raises more questions for retailers