It is impossible for the images coming out of Bangladesh in the past few weeks not to leave their impact and, in discussing the business response to the tragedy, we must not lose sight of the fact that people have lost their lives because sufficient precautions were not taken.
As comments on this site have pointed out, it’s difficult to believe that the equivalent number of British workers could die without provoking a far greater response than what we have seen so far. There have been petitions and calls for change from campaign groups, but little from governments both domestic and international.
The number of retailers to have signed up to the Accord, therefore, is worthy of positive reflection.
In the run up to the deadline, I received statement after statement confirming that retailers ranging from Marks & Spencer and Next to Primark and New Look had inked the agreement. Some have abstained, often with good reason, but even those have made their own pledges that suggest a real sea change is taking place.
For those who have signed up the new accord appears to be a far more rigorous than the audits most retailers had signed up to before – campaign groups had long complained that these were mere box-ticking measures, while suppliers on the ground have told Drapers it enabled retailers to “turn a blind eye” to the problems.
Just how much it will cost our fashion businesses remains to be seen, and although the accord stipulates that each company will spend $2.5m (£1.64m) over the next five years, I suspect it could be more in the end. After all, Bangladesh may be one of the biggest manufacturing hubs in the world but it is certainly not the only one, and building safety is one component of many that needs to be addressed.
Who will take the hit on this remains to be seen – will the retailer absorb it in their margins, will they push it over to suppliers or will they – gulp – raise prices on garments? The most sensible solution seems to be a combination of the three so that no one side is exposed.
Suppliers have been squeezed to such a degree already that, although retailers hold the power to push further, in the spirit of long-term sustainability it must be spread throughout the food chain. The timing of Primark’s results, just a day before the factory collapsed, has only served to highlight how much wiggle room a business reporting profits up 55% has to manoeuvre.
As an industry there is certainly far to go before we can collectively hold our heads high, but it is a step in the right direction.
Ultimately we could see well-run and profitable fashion businesses proving that they have been a force for good – providing employment in developing countries, offering training and a decent wage, as well as the basics of a safe working environment.
This is not about being an “ethical” business in the way we might usually understand that word - worthy-sounding, on the fringes and ultimately not very fashionable. It is standard practice for companies that operate here in the UK to treat their staff well – why shouldn’t we expect the same in the rest of the world?