As many of us enjoyed the leftovers of the Thanksgiving feast this past Saturday and Sunday, families on the other side of the globe had a much different—and devastating—kind of weekend. As flames subsided from a garment factory blaze outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, the images of the damage began to surface. All told, more than 100 people died in a tragedy that most likely could have been prevented had there been sufficient emergency exits.
Unfortunately, fires in offshore manufacturing facilities are not as unusual as you might think. There have been numerous fires in Bangladesh since 2006 with more than 300 killed, according to this story in the Washington Post. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story, as they reflect what the government has reported from deaths in the fires without accounting for those who died later or in other ways while trying to escape. The real number tops 500, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, an Amsterdam-based anti-sweatshop advocacy group, as reported in this article in the New York Times.
In September, a fire ravaged a textile factory complex in Karachi, Pakistan, killing nearly 300 who were trapped behind locked doors. And this was just hours after another fire at a shoe factory in nearby Lahore took the lives of 25 more, as the New York Times reported in this article.
As these events attest, potentially innocuous management decisions—such as placing evacuation stairs on the inside rather than outside of a building or locking doors to deter theft—can, and do, have unintended consequences.
It only takes a single image to undo even the most successful campaigns in the eyes of your customers—and many of them will never forget what they’ve seen in the news. Headlines from Bangladesh and Pakistan only underscore why social accountability audits remain the primary inspection requested and, in many cases, required by end-buyers.
From the late 1980s, social accountability audits have become increasingly popular, largely as a result of offshore manufacturing. Throughout the 1990s, many U.S. household brand names were identified in exposés of child labor, failure to pay wages, forced labor and factory fires. To satisfy Corporate America’s shareholders’ burgeoning appetite for greater sourcing accountability from their companies, a proliferation of proprietary accountability programs ensued. While all focused primarily on human rights, few of them measured the same things in the same way.
What’s In An Audit? Semantics And Social Compliance
Over time, there have been shifts in not only what is evaluated during social accountability audits but also in what terms are used to identify the content of the audit. As one would expect, human rights are most certainly a component of these examinations, as is advocacy for the workers producing the products manufactured on behalf of brands whose programs are placed in the factory.
This approach became even more apparent in 2000, when the United Nations (U.N.) Global Compact Initiative was launched to standardize audit scope. The U.N. Global Compact, a voluntary corporate sustainability initiative, is administered through the U.N. Global Compact Office and receives support from six U.N. agencies, including the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights.
The Compact’s objective is “sustainability,” and its compliance standards are focused not only on human rights but also labor, environment and anti-corruption. By incorporating a four-pronged approach, the Compact has changed the conversation from one focused on “human rights abuses”—an idea that conjures notorious images of ruthless dictators and marauding ethnic clans—to one about “ethical manufacturing practices” that is rooted in laws written by the governments of the countries in which those laws are applied.
Altering the way we talk about conditions in the workplace—and, in this case, the factory—allows us to use the principles in the Charter to move beyond a black-and-white “human rights abuse” conversation to a practical discussion with an array of business tools for fixing the problem. By simply posing the questions using more accurate vocabulary, all parties involved can begin to envision different responses and meaningful corrective actions.
Managing Risk: What Do You Do With What You Know?
As these types of stories continue to make headlines, end-buyers increasingly want to know their products are created in a production environment that is not only aware of ethical manufacturing standards but is also actively engaged in process improvements that emphasize implementation of best practice corrective actions. They truly want the “accountability” in social accountability—and they want the audit data to prove it.
But some belittle physical audits as nothing more than “picture day,” where the factory figuratively gets dressed in it’s Sunday best to impress the auditors and then proceeds with business as usual once the regulators leave. This is an easy out for those who haven’t experienced the depth of information revealed in an audit or who haven’t received the guidance audits provide in how to potentially improve their business. Audits invariably uncover a road map to process-improvements that can—and do—make a significant difference to how a business operates. The question is: What do you with the information you glean?
Tazreen Fashions, the site of the Bangladeshi fire, for example, is said to have received an Orange rating (think of the “orange” traffic light you ran on your way to work) from Wal-Mart in its most recent audit, according to this article in the South China Morning Post. And this was after the manufacturer received a Yellow rating in August last year. Clearly, the warning signs were there—but they were ignored or fell through the cracks in a rush to meet the perceived consumer demands in the U.S. and Europe.
Nothing was done to manage the risks, and many are paying the price. Workers are dead, their families permanently altered from the needless loss. The retailers and brands whose goods were produced in the factory are struggling to control an explosive situation during peak holiday season. And the importer that placed the order with Tazreen Fashions without authorization now finds its relationship terminated with the retailer—permanently and publicly.
Epilogue: Now What?
As terrible as recent factory fires have been, the news cycle continues marching on, replacing one tragic event with another above the fold. Memories may fade over time, but the reality is that Corporate America is increasingly entrusting entire promotional programs to our industry. The expectation is that we will manage these programs responsibly—and we absolutely must. The future success of our market depends on it.
D E Fenton is executive director - compliance for Quality Certification Alliance (QCA), the promotional product industry's only independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping companies provide safe products. With more than 20 years of compliance experience, she offers practical advice and actionable tips that help make the complex concept of compliance easier to understand so companies can implement compliance into their daily business practices. She can be reached at email@example.com or visit www.qcalliance.org for more information.