Bangladesh and the Problem of Ethical Sourcing
On Nov. 24, 2012, a fire broke out in the Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 112 workers and injuring 200 more. At the time, it was the deadliest in a string of factory accidents in the country dating back to 2006, a six-year span that according to anti-sweatshop activist group Clean Clothes Campaign saw at least 500 Bangladeshi garment workers killed in factory fires.
It wasn't the deadliest manufacturing accident of 2012—barely two months prior, on Sept. 11, a textile factory in Karachi, Pakistan caught fire, killing 289 workers—and it would soon be overshadowed by the April 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed 1,127 laborers in Savar, Bangladesh. But it was the most inextricably linked to major Western supply chains. Walmart, Disney, Sears and other large companies were implicated in sourcing from the Tazreen factory, and the (justifiably) relentless media coverage of those ties added renewed fervor to long-standing calls for social accountability in overseas sourcing.
But how much will overseas sourcing and manufacturing policies actually change in the wake of these tragedies? Public reaction to incidents like these is often fickle, a brief but impassioned outcry for change that fizzles with the revolving of the news cycle. Apple's Foxconn debacle and Nike's ongoing Indonesian child-labor allegations ultimately did little to sway consumer habits, which in turn yielded little change in either company's sourcing policies; they may have cleaned up their acts (or at least assuaged consumer doubts), but neither company moved its manufacturing elsewhere.
Still, the Bangladesh incidents have dominated headlines in a way that Foxconn and Indonesia did not. Poor working conditions and near-nonexistent wages have existed overseas for as long as Western consumers have demanded low prices, but never has the body count been so impactful—quadruple-digits are hard to ignore. Public backlash has been more intense than ever, and for their part, the companies involved this time around have at last begun taking small steps to change the way they source.