Noone Wants to be on a “No-buy List:” The Tragedy in Bangladesh and What it Means for LA Fashion

Bangladesh

The collapse of a factory in Bangladesh that killed at least 1,1000 people has raised questions about the role of the fashion industry in the working conditions found in countries like Bangladesh. Several companies including H&M, Carrefour, and Benetton have signed an international agreement that requires each signatory to help fund fire and building safety improvements in factories.

So we wanted to know, what does this mean for LA’s fashion industry? DnA’s Caroline Chamberlain called Ilse Metchek, President of the California Fashion Association.

Chamberlain: What are the implications of the Bangladesh building collapse for the LA fashion industry?

Metchek: Not a lot. The reason for that is that the LA fashion industry does not deal with large volume commodity products like Wal-Mart and Target. The LA design community relies on a higher priced market–merchandise that is not cheap. When buyers buy from Los Angeles, they are not buying merchandise that is cheaper than anywhere else. Our manufacturers for the most part do not work in Bangladesh.

C: Are people in the Los Angeles fashion community concerned about the ethics behind the clothing they produce?

M: Ethical practices is a subjective term. Nobody wants any picketing. They care because they are ever-watchful of being on a no-buy list. But it is a decision based on money. The word caring in the world of business is not an altruistic term. What do they care about? They care about their brand, their reputation, and their standing in the community. You do not want to be on that list of manufacturers who is found in a Bangladesh factory.

C: How has the design and fashion community in Los Angeles reacted to the building collapse in Bangladesh?

M: Just as any business community reacted. It was a terrible occurrence in the world. The building collapsed, that is very, very sad and it’s a reflection of the lack of concern of Bangladesh for its people. When it is apparel-specific then they immediately react and take a look at their supply chain.

But the ramifications have to be thought through. This is what happened to Cambodia and Myanmar 15 years ago. The practices in Bangladesh have been suspect. There are very clear rules for factories that began 15 years ago. Many of the major brands in the United States had very strict rules about sourcing and manufacturing. No matter what they [the United States manufacturers] did they [Cambodia and Myanmar] did not keep their promise. And that’s what’s going to happen with Bangladesh. In those countries, apparel manufacturing is probably the largest employer of people who would otherwise have no employment– and they will suffer. The owners of the factories and the owners of the buildings will suffer because they won’t get the business.

C: Is the international pact recently signed by many major retailers going to make a difference?

M: Surely it will. The reason Wal-Mart’s not signing on to that is because Wal-Mart will set its own rules. The lower you go in terms of pricing, they will need Bangladesh. The problem is the factories and how they are run. (See more on Wal-Mart’s solo plan in the New York Times)

C: What regulations apply to domestically manufactured products?

M: Domestic manufacturing has very clear restrictions and oversight. On wage an hour and AB633 a law that very clearly defines how a factory must operate in CA, and we are the only state that has those type of regulations. We as an industry, are much more highly regulated than any other state in the union.

For more of KCRW’s coverage on the implications of the collapse of the Bangladesh factory, listen to this To the Point; and read this NYT editorial for considerations before “you buy that T-shirt.”