Marcus Chung: A report from Bangladesh

ChungSadly, today’s guest post from my friend Marcus Chung is timely. The New York Times reported this morning on another factory fire in Bangladesh, this one killing seven women. Is this the price we must pay for cheap clothes? Marcus thinks not–although he’s just 36, he has worked for about a decade on corporate responsibility issues in the apparel industry, doing stints at Gap and Talbot’s. I’ve gotten to know Marcus as a fellow board member at Net Impact, a nonprofit organization of students and young professionals who want to use their business skills to make the world more just and sustainable. That’s exactly what Marcus, a Wesleyan grad with a Berkeley MBA, is doing in his current job, consulting for a global retailer of children’s clothing. Here’s his report from Bangladesh.

From the moment you arrive at the Dhaka airport, it’s clear that the apparel industry is vital to Bangladesh’s economy. Airport walls are lined with posters advertising local garment manufacturers, textile mills, and trims suppliers. Apparel accounts for between 70 and 80 percent of exports, so it’s no surprise that almost everyone on my flight from Hong Kong to Dhaka declared their profession as “buyer” or “sourcing” when clearing through immigration.

I visited Dhaka on behalf of a client to get a better understanding of the CSR challenges, trends, and opportunities that large apparel brands face in sourcing from Bangladeshi garment factories. Following November 2012’s tragic Tazreen Fashions factory fire that claimed the lives of more than 100 workers, there is renewed focus on how the industry can promote better factory working conditions. Tazreen was just the latest in a string of Bangladeshi garment factories that burned to the ground, but it also was the country’s most devastating in terms of lives lost.

Western mass-market apparel retailers source from Bangladesh because they can get a solid product at a competitive price. The apparel industry cannot ignore a fundamental commercial reality: Bangladesh has a ready supply of very capable garment factories that are filled with inexpensive labor. It’s not realistic (or probably advisable–MG)for companies to simply stop sourcing from the country. Therefore, the industry must do a better job of sourcing in a responsible manner that protects the rights of workers and includes basic commitments to a safe and healthy work environment.

A Multitude of Challenges

Over the years, I’ve heard many hypotheses about why fire safety continues to challenge so many Bangladeshi factory managers. Some cite an ineffective, corrupt government that does not enforce its own building code regulations. Others believe factory middle managers, myopically focused on production output, lack the ability or understanding to support fire safety practices with workers. Many believe pressure from Western brands to achieve low-cost goods encourages subversion of basic health and safety standards. I’ve heard people claim the root cause is a basic lack of infrastructure: old, multi-story buildings with poor electrical wiring; unreliable power supply (I cannot count the number of times the power went out during my visit) that causes short-circuits; and dusty, flammable materials lying dangerously close to unprotected electrical outlets. I spoke with one CSR leader who lamented a general lack of civil society and a culture where officials will agree to make improvements, but never follow through. [click to continue…]