The Tragedy of Cheap Clothes

The death toll from a devastating fire in a clothing factory in Bangladesh 17 days ago surpassed 1,000 souls Friday, all because of suppliers' complete disregard for corporate requirements around building safety and workplace conditions. The implications for major retailers and apparel manufacturers are significant. While companies are responding in various ways, one thing is certain: This is an important issue for consumers and investors to monitor going forward.

Lowest price, guaranteed
On April 24, the eight-story Rana Plaza complex of clothing factories near Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed. More than a thousand lives were snuffed out in the service of a murky global supply chain of cheap textiles that generally goes completely unnoticed. Perhaps that's about to change.

Clothing retailers rightly worry about brand damage when something like this happens. In the ashes of a similar fire that killed at least 117 people less than six months ago, sweatshirts emblazoned with Disney characters bound for Wal-Mart turned up. Since then, Wal-Mart has introduced stricter fire-safety audits and a zero-tolerance policy toward contractors' use of unauthorized factories.

Walt Disney told licensees in March that Bangladesh was no longer an approved manufacturing location for Disney-branded merchandise. The change in policy was part of a larger effort to move Disney-branded goods production out of countries with poor factory and worker safety records, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Venezuela.

Factories within multi-use buildings in Bangladesh are at particularly high risk of fire, and J.C. Penney plans to have phased out their use by the end of this month. Sears Holdings is also re-examining the dangers of multilevel factories operated by multiple owners, which could prove to be a real blow to the Bangladeshi textile industry as a whole.

Nike knows all too well how damaging such scandals can be. It's joined the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, along with such big names as Wal-Mart, Gap, J.C. Penney, and Target. The coalition started an index last year with environmental goals, but the new version expected this fall will include social and labor measurements. The index is currently restricted to internal company use, but the aim is eventually to release the information to shoppers.

Proceed with caution
They'll have to proceed cautiously with the coalition approach, though. The Rana Plaza disaster has shown that brands can't hide behind industry initiatives. In early reactions after the fire, some brands tried to duck the issue by citing their involvement with groups like the Ethical Trading Initiative. Such initiatives can achieve great outcomes, but they don't absolve a company of its responsibility to understand and manage its own supply chain.

Another lesson is that corporate codes of conduct are not working. Most brands have supply-chain codes of conduct that require protection, proper pay, and good treatment for workers in outsourced factories. Clearly these have failed, and factory inspections have not uncovered unsafe working practices and illegal building structures.

There's a serious disconnect between compliance departments and procurement officers. In the battle for cheaper goods, procurement departments focus myopically on price and delivery times. These tragedies won't be prevented until compliance is fully embedded in the procurement process.

Change is gonna come
Maybe we've reached a turning point. It's happened before. Nike learned the hard way that using sweatshop labor can lead to boycotts. A fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York in 1911, which killed 146 people, prompted major changes in U.S. factory working conditions. Beyond the fact that it's the right thing to do, it's also just good business to understand your supply chain, protect your labor force assets, and keep your brand squeaky clean. Consumers and investors should expect it.

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Sara Murphy has no position in any stocks mentioned. Follow her on Twitter at @SMurphSmiles. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Nike and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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