I distinctly remember finding a tiny slip of white paper that read “Made by Carole in Ohio” in the pocket of a pair of overalls I wore as a kid. I remember this prompted a full on daydream inspired by Carole. What does she look like? Does she drive a minivan? Does she like horses? Amidst the reverie, I remember thinking about the fact that people with lives, families, friends, and interests make the everyday products we all use.
This past April, many of us were introduced, albeit posthumously, to the “Caroles” of Dhaka, Bangladesh, who worked at the Rana Plaza factory. I cannot think of a sadder story than theirs and the aftermath of the devastating factory collapse filled me with a sad uneasiness that lingered for months. So I bought a plane ticket to Dhaka. The company I work for grants sabbaticals every four years and my four years were up: I am taking two months off to go to Bangladesh and Cambodia to try, through technology, to help grow garment factory worker safety and rights efforts underway by organizations in the region.
Through my network in the sustainability community, I was able to arrange volunteer experiences with BSR HERproject in Dhaka, and the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia program in Phnom Penh. Both were willing to have an American technologist tag along for a month to try and accelerate the good work they are already doing with some added technology solutions.
I’ve now completed my last day as a BSR volunteer in Bangladesh and am preparing to leave to Cambodia in the morning. I’ve been sitting in a van in a traffic jam for the last four hours with three other women who conducted a HERproject pre-natal and maternal health training at a factory outside Dhaka. HERproject, the Business for Social Responsibility program that I volunteered for, works to increase women’s health awareness and access to health services through sustainable workplace programs like worker and management trainings.
I’ve taken Bangla lessons and I can pick up about a fifth of what one of the trainers is shouting with distress into her cell phone. “…Fire. Factory…Oh God…Call me back.” I ask her what has happened and she tells me about the factory fire in another factory in Gazipur, one that hasn’t implemented HERproject programming. There is no information yet on how many people have died but there are casualties. We sit in silence for much of the rest of the two-hour ride home.
I look out the window of the dust-covered van at the darkness and the cacophony around me: the rickshaws, tuk tuks, cars, buses, and pedestrians all held in pause and negotiating with the trucks carrying cows into Dhaka for the upcoming Eid holiday. From the road, I see foreboding concrete buildings with rows of fluorescent lights across the ceilings and signs above the guarded gates with cheerful names like “Exuberant Knitwear, LLC.” and “Rainbow Brilliance Fashions, Ltd.” Bangladesh’s GDP is currently at a growth rate of a little less than 6%, compared to India’s 4% and the U.S.’s 2.5%. This is both driven and impeded by the country’s role as one of the world’s leading seamstresses.
Unfortunately, the media doesn’t give us many success stories about Bangladesh. Instead we hear stories about Rana Plaza and Gazipur, and smaller exposés about decoy smoke detectors and the decided lack of rigor in selecting workers of legal age. These stories are important. They honor the memory of those that perished, raise consumer awareness, and outline to brands the risk involved with not mandating complete transparency in their supply chains. But now having spent some time in Bangladesh, it bothers me that we only hear the terrible news. I want some good news to come through–to tell the story of factories that are not putting their workers at risk.
I’ve heard from colleagues in several countries that brands are beginning to explore Myanmar as the new spot for garment production. I worry that history will repeat itself and we’ll turn our backs on Bangladesh just like the garment industry did with Sri Lanka around the time I was wondering about Carole.
A few hours prior hearing the news about Gazipur, I was having one of the best professional and personal experiences of my life. In another garment factory a few hours up the road, I met more than 100 workers who seemed generally happy. I got to tell them in my limited Bangla that I wished them health, safety, and happiness.
The atmosphere on the factory floor reminded me more of a startup technology office and less like the automotive factories I visit through my work at Autodesk. It was filled with men and women in their early 20s and 30s collaborating on their work, toiling over pocket seams instead of PowerPoint presentations. There was a lot of sincere laughing and smiling–not a show for the American being led around.
The air conditioned, well-lit floors were filled with pieces of brightly colored gingham that were in various stages of becoming the ubiquitous men’s business casual shirt of the moment. I couldn’t help but think of all the management consultants I know who wear those shirts: the business schools grads like me who probably set supply chain strategy for some of the brands who operate in Bangladesh, the MBAs taught the triple bottom line who expect the companies they work for will weave it into corporate strategy, the guys who were horrified and saddened by the news of Rana Plaza just like I was and might not know how much of their closet was closely tied to that tragedy.
Some factories operating in this region of the world use the excuse that compliance is too expensive. They deal with the details later as they scramble to grow business. Their short-sightedness makes it hard for them to see the payback for the upfront capital and process changes necessary to meet, and dare I say, exceed regulations. I hope that more success stories about places like the factory I visited come to light to show them that making steps towards compliance and opening the door to programming like HERproject trainings can actually help a factory differentiate itself. If I put myself in the position of a brand, I would look for a vertical manufacturer who wouldn’t put me at risk. I would look for a partner, not just a cheap supplier, because the repercussions of risk outweigh the cost savings.
The factory I visited had secured a multi-year contract with a well-known multi-national brand. The deal closed due in no small part to the compliance and CSR programming like the HERproject worker trainings that the factory implemented. The factory management had differentiated itself from the pack and moved beyond worrying about the next check to a secure stream of revenue. Sounds like a good ROI to me.