As the May 15 deadline has come and gone to sign the IndustriALL-backed Bangladesh safety agreement, the abscence of a number of US brands has become even more apparent as more than 30 international retailers have agreed to the terms defined by international labor organizations to ensure the repair and future maintenance of Bangladesh's growing garment industry. Last month, Rana Plaza, an eight-story factory employing mostly young women collapsed, killing 1,127 people.
While American clothing brands and retailers have been actively involved in the ensuing dialogue, the only two to sign the agreement by the deadline were PVH (which owns the Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Van Heusen brands) and Abercrombie & Fitch, while Walmart and Gap publicly declared their opposition to the plan.
To date, the list of signatories includes: Abercrombie & Fitch, Aldi, Benetton, C&A, Carrefour, El Corte Ingles, Esprit, G-Star, H&M, Helly Hansen, Hess Natur, Inditex (Zara's owner), jbc, KiK New Look, Lidl, Loblaws on behalf of its Joe Fresh and Primark brands, Mango, Marks & Spencer, Mothercare, N Brown Group, Next, PVH, Rewe, Sainsbury's, Stockmann, Switcher, Tchibo, Tesco and WE Europe.
IndustriALL, the Geneva-based international union that organized the accord said, “We will not close the door on brands who want to join after the deadline but we will forge ahead with the implementation plan from today. Those wanting to join later will not be in a position to influence decisions already made.”
As late as Wednesday, Gap had expressed the possibility of signing the agreement, saying it was "six sentences away," referring to a disagreement on the legal stipulations of the proposed agreement. Similarly, Walmart, the world's largest retailer, expressed concerns with the way the accord planned to solve legal matters, and claimed that its own safety and improvement plan would work better and faster than the one proposed by the laber unions.
“Walmart is out of step. By not signing up its brand sinks to a new low. Equally, Gap’s refusal to join is a mistake shoppers will not forget. We will make progress without them," said Philip Jennings, general secretary of the UNI global labor group.
Another major international brand, Arcadia Group, which owns the UK's Topshop, Topman, BHS and Miss Selfridge retail brands, also did not sign the agreement by the deadline.
As for why American retailers remain more reticent than their European counterparts to sign the agreement, Triple Pundit suggests that, "European consumers are perceived as more sensitive to ethical issues, and American companies don't like to lose control." It also suggests that US retailers are "doing it the Apple way," which includes "adopting a reactive strategy based on the company’s belief that it can provide the best possible solution, solely decided on the level of responsibility or transparency the situation requires."
No matter the reasoning, US retailers aren't getting away easy. Gap's customers have taken to the brand's Facebook pages (US and UK) to express their outrage while thousands of consumers expressed their discontent with the Walmart brand on Twitter.
One mother commented on a post about the Gap's children's line: "I will not dress my children in clothes made on other peoples lives. Shame on Gap. I will not shop at a store that gambles with people's lives. By refusing to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, Gap is displaying a disgusting level of greed. Stop putting lives at risk and sign now."
Even Abercrombie & Fitch, which is currently embroiled in its own personal brand scandal right now, was getting kudos from consumers in light of their support for the safety plan.
Meanwhile, another garment industry accident in Cambodia sheds light on the breadth of the issues that plague the garment industry not just in Bangladesh, but worldwide. A ceiling collapse in a factory killed three and injured six, prompting a response from Japanese sports-shoe company Asics, which confirmed that the factory is one of its suppliers. "We would like to offer our deepest condolences to the victims," said Asics spokeswoman Masayo Hasegawa, according toThe Wall Street Journal. "We hope utmost priority is given to rescue efforts. Much remains unclear about the circumstances of this accident, and we are checking to ascertain the facts."
Cambodia is now a major producer of clothing and shoes for Western buyers and its garment industry employs about 500,000 people in more than 500 factories, having shipped more than $4 billion in products to the US and Europe last year.
Will the brands that rejected the Bangladesh safety agreement pay a price? Will it make a difference in your buying habits?