Apparel Sourcing Intelligence - Worldwide

North American retailers launch non-existent Initiative

North American retailers, acting as The North American Bangladesh Worker Safety Working Group, loudly announced a “Safer Factories Initiative” on May 15, which they claimed “includes short, medium, and long-term strategic goals for moving forward with meaningful improvements to worker safety in Bangladesh”. A month later, some of the group still claim the Initiative is a real plan – but have released no details. America’s major retailers are less certain there ever will be such a plan.

Allegedly “formed in January 2013”, the North American Bangladesh Worker Safety Working Group is formed from the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), Canadian Apparel Federation (CAF), National Retail Federation (NRF), Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), United States Association of Importers of Textile and Apparel (USA-ITA).

The Safer Factories Initiative , the group claimed, “details how the goal of improving worker safety in Bangladesh cannot only be done now, but can be sustained into the future.” The group added privately at the time that those details would be available “shortly”, and spokespeople provided lengthy descriptions of what the Initiative would not do – but by mid-June those details still remained unannounced.

Some members of the group apparently still believe there really is a plan somewhere : on June 3, the AAFA offered to discuss it with an activist shareholder group. But on May 30, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), a not-for-profit foundation, announced it had been asked by “an alliance of retailers and brands” to convene discussions, with a retired Republican and a retired Democrat Senator serving as independent facilitators, “to develop a single, unified action plan and schedule for implementation that will achieve effective and long-lasting change for the garment industry and its workers in Bangladesh.”

The “alliance” had come from four of the North American Bangladesh Worker Safety Working Group members (USA-ITA appears no longer involved), together with some major retailers and brands: Gap, Walmart, JC Penney, Sears and Target are known to be among them. The BPC went on to say that “the alliance intends to release this plan by early July.”

The ex-Senators commissioned by the BPC are real heavyweights: George Mitchell (the Democrat) played a decisive role in the Northern Ireland peace process, and has been both Senate Majority Leader and Chairman of Disney. There is no doubt about the determination of the BPC to engineer a plan, or of the willingness of many alliance members to see safer factories.

But even members of the alliance (no more seems to have been heard of the Safety Working Group or of this mysterious Safer Factories Initiative) are managing expectations about the BPC project. “We are hopeful that … these discussions will result in a plan for long-lasting change for the garment industry in Bangladesh,” said Bill Chandler, vice-president of global corporate affairs for Gap. A Walmart spokesman said the company believed “there is a need to partner with other stakeholders to improve the standards for workers across the industry”.

No more empty claims (except from the AAFA) about months of work producing a more robust and workable plan than the wimpy Europeans. But two months after the Rana Plaza collapse, and over six months after Tazreen, American garment buyers are being depicted in public as doing no more than talking about having talks.

This is unfair to the real work Gap and Walmart have done (and the real money they have spent) to improve factories and procedures. But there is a great deal of substance in the claims about inaction, and the industry’s enemies have not been slow to exploit the American industry’s inexplicably ham-fisted mismanagement (and its trade associations’ crass and loud-mouthed public announcements) in responding to public outrage.