Canadians Respond to Bangladesh Factory Collapse

As the bad news from Bangladesh continues, with the death toll from the Rana Plaza building collapses surpassing a gut-wrenching 1,000, and additional deaths in a separate factory fire last week, Canadians, from corporations to NGOs, are responding to the tragic circumstances in a variety of ways. In Canada, the building collapse has been a major media story with a big focus on national grocery retailer Loblaw Companies Limited and their low-price fashion brand Joe Fresh1. A small portion of Joe Fresh clothing was produced in the collapsed factory (the Joe Fresh brand is produced in 47 factories in Bangladesh).2 The collapse comes as the brand is expanding into the US from its base in Canada, recently opening shops inside 683 JC Penneys across the US.3 One of Canada’s largest private-sector employers, Loblaw has devoted a lot of energy in recent years to its corporate responsibility strategy.4 That footprint is clearly visible in the Loblaw response to the disaster. Communicating quickly, the company went on to be one of the few brands globally to take early public responsibility and announce compensation for families.5 Both Loblaw Executive Chairman Galen Weston Jr. and Joe Fresh Creative Director Joe Mimran were visibly in front of the issue, addressing the media at their Annual General Meeting on May 2, 2013. Weston Jr., next-generation public face of the business, is already strongly associated with the brand in national grocery marketing. Weston Jr. and Mimran made three commitments6: a relief fund for families; the addition to their factory audit criteria of local construction and building code compliance; and a commitment to add on-the-ground employees to monitor compliance with organizational values. Loblaw senior managers are visiting Bangladesh to address the situation. In terms of their immediate response, Loblaw has been timely, compassionate and committed to staying in country to affect change. But, there is also a sense that Joe Fresh is on probation with some parts of the Canadian public, depending on the longer-term response to the issue.7 That is where the debate is now focused in Canada. At the collective level, the Canadian retail community met through Retail Council of Canada, announcing that it will develop an updated set of responsible trade guidelines, join a North American coalition of retail industry associations on the issue, and through the coalition, work with the International Labour Organization, the Bangladeshi government and others to align with plans to address safety in the garment industry.8 Twenty-three Canadian trade unions, NGOs and others sent a joint letter to Loblaw urging them to commit to the joint fire and building safety program with the global garment worker union IndustriALL.9 I have seen at least one No-Loblaws sign in a shop window in Kensington Market, Toronto. But others do not advocate a boycott of Joe Fresh or Bangladeshi-produced clothing, including green folks, given the impact on workers who depend on the low wages for their livelihoods in a desperately poor country.10 The Canadian-based Maquila Solidarity Network recommends Canadians support an online petition urging Gap and H&M CEOs sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the IndustriALL efforts, as well as engaging with Joe Fresh through social media.11 (H&M has now signed on to the Accord, but Joe Fresh has not as yet.)12 Forward motion will have to come from collaboration between business and government, recognizing worker human rights, right to organize, safety rights, and engaging on infrastructure. As others have said, if we look in our closets, most of us are touched by the issue. Choosing to boycott one brand will not abate the demand and expectation consumers now have for instant fashion at a “value” price. How much can price move to ensure proper infrastructure for garment production, and, once in place, to ensure businesses remain in country long term? This is the competitive corner clothing brands have to work their way out of together through collaborative initiatives like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and hopefully, through the long-term effects of consolidating global CR standards. 1,6 Joe Fresh website. Retrieved from 2 Kopun, F. (2013, 2 May). Toronto Star. Bangladesh factory collapse: Loblaw to audit structural safety of suppliers' buildings. Retrieved from 3 Kopun, F. (2013, 14 March). Toronto Star. Joe Fresh debuts stores at J.C. Penney locations across the U.S. Retrieved from e_fresh_debuts_stores_at_jc_penney_locations_across_the_us.html 4 Responsibility. Loblaws website. Retrieved from 5. Taylor, S. (2013, 29 April). Thomson Reuters. Canada's Loblaw joins Primark in Bangladesh compensation pledge. Retrieved from 7,11 Strapagiel, L. (2o13, 29 April). Don't boycott Joe Fresh (yet). Retrieved from 8 Retail Council of Canada. (2013, 30 April). Statement on Bangladesh. Retrieved from 9 Maquila Solidarity Network (2013, 1 May). Rana Plaza Bangladesh Canadian Letter. Retrieved from 10 Vasil, A. (2013). Now Magazine. Should we boycott Joe Fresh? Retrieved from 12 Maquila Solidarity Network (2013, 13 May). Website. Retrieved from