Data Expedition story: Why garment retailers need to do more in Bangladesh

June 4, 2013 in Data Expeditions, Data for CSOs

On May 25-26 almost 50 participants from several teams set out on a data expedition to map the garment factories. This is a report from the team comprised of Roy Keyes, Naomi Colvin, Sybern, Bhanupriya Rao and Daniela Mattern. The team used a crowdsourced database on garment factories to expose questionable standards and highlight the need for open supplier lists from all retailers. The article concludes that major retailers like Wal-Mart maintains high levels of opacity around their supply chain and audit standards, which are detrimental to improving working standards in the garment industry.

Not the first time!
When the Rana Plaza collapsed killing 1127 people and injuring over 2500 people of its 5000 workforce, it shocked the world and shone an instant light on the working conditions of the garment factories in Bangladesh. While it may have been the worst disaster of our times, it is my no means the first in Bangladesh, where fire due to faulty electrics and short-circuits or building collapses due to structural and maintenance issues are commonplace. Just 8 days later, another fire broke out in one of the Tung Hai group factory killing 8 people. The fire in Tazreen garment factory in November 2012, which killed 100 people should have acted as a wake up call to take health and safety issues seriously. But all it did was lull the government, retailers and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) into deeper slumber after dubbing it as arson.

The Rana Plaza tragedy seemed like a rude awakening, one that shone a spotlight on the appalling conditions that Human Rights Watch and others have warned about for many years in sweat shops. There was an instant rush by Western retailers who source a major chunk of their ready-made garments from Bangladesh, to appear to be doing the right thing: to be holier-than-thou. Wal-Mart was quick to release a list of 250 factories that it blacklisted from its supplier list in what appears to be a PR exercise, without any transparency around their audit findings or the exact reasons for the blacklist except for a vague statement that the ‘violations could relate to safety issues, social issues, unauthorized subcontracting or other requirements established by our set of Standards for Suppliers. Suffice it to say that, H&M still sources from eleven and Van-Gruppen from two of the factories. In the absence of transparent data on their methods of audit and their findings, simply blacklisting of companies is not very helpful. Wal-Mart’s blacklist consists of large textile groups such as Akh Fashions, Hop Lun and Mohammadi Group that that own several factories and supply to several big western retailers. MJ Group – whose subsidiary, Columbia Garments, is on the Wal-Mart list – lists Replay, New Yorker, C&A, Espirit, GAP, Old Navy and Macys alongside H&M as customers on its website.

Sustainability and Ethical codes
The essential point being missed in the rush to appear holier-than-thou is the compliance with ethical standards initiatives that rely largely on a multi-stake holder model. Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) is one such accreditation initiative which has released a list of 194 factories in Bangladesh that meets its standards. That these certified factories constitute a mere 3% of all factories in Bangladesh gives us an insight into how far the industry has to go as far as certification is concerned. Interestingly, 22 of the Wal-Mart blacklisted factories feature on this list. While Wal-Mart was quick to disclose a blacklist in a bid to appear responsible, it would do well to disclose all its suppliers in the interests of transparency and responsible sourcing.

H&M has been much more transparent here, not just disclosing a list of its worldwide suppliers, but also spelling out its stringent audit policy. Only one H&M factory was both WRAP certified and on Wal-Mart blacklist. And the story is a bit more encouraging because 15% of H&M’s suppliers in Bangladesh are WRAP accredited. Brands like Puma (10%) and Varner-Gruppen (15%) show some good signs of sourcing from accredited suppliers as opposed to Timberland and Nike, none of whose suppliers are WRAP accredited. While by no means adequate, it does show that some retailers are better at sourcing ethically than the others.

Table: Which retailers use WRAP Certified factories?



in Bangladesh

WRAP Certified

Retailer % WRAP Certified

























Source: Crowdsourced garment factory list

The blacklist from Wal-Mart is pretty rich considering that along with Gap it has refused to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, instead preferring to rely on their own codes and audits. H&M was the first retailer, followed by 31 others, to sign the agreement which includes provisions for independent safety inspections, mandatory repairs and renovations and a commitment to pay for them and a role for workers and their unions to make garment factories safe in Bangladesh safe. The accord is a watershed moment for the reason that it is a multilateral initiative driven by retailers, global unions IndustriALL and UNI, in alliance with Clean Clothes Campaign and Worker Rights Consortium.

It certainly could be the last!
In the aftermath of the Wal-Mart blacklist, other retailers like H&M have rushed in to rethink their sourcing policy and look at new supply chains in Africa and Latin America. While any rethink is welcome, it needs to be in the area of more responsible auditing, greater transparency in supply chains, not just of primary suppliers, but secondary ones where there is astounding opacity. What would be a great step forward for western retailers like H&M is to make public their factory wise audit findings for greater accountability. Simply moving supply chains and tolerating the same conditions will not see the end of tragedies such as the Rana Plaza. There needs to be timely and better audit data as well as supplier data down to the last in the supply chain as well as greater commitment to multi-stakeholder processes such as the Fire safety accord. This could be the beginning of a long-term political engagement on workers safety and better wage and working conditions. This also means that Rana Plaza could be the last in the list of terrible tragedies.

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