Two campaigns carried out over the past two years by two groups of activists have achieved very different results. Whereas Greenpeace has successfully corralled major brands and retailers into its Detox programme, the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement (BFBSA) campaign has struggled to make a mark. Mike Flanagan looks at what the Bangladesh factory fire row tells us about the future of compliance.

In mid-2011, Greenpeace launched a campaign to persuade major apparel buyers to eliminate all toxic discharges from their products supply chains by 2020. So far it has signed up more than a dozen of the world's major buying companies to what's now known as the Detox Challenge.

Earlier in 2011, a different group of activists launched the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement (BFBSA) campaign. Almost two years later, not one buyer has unconditionally signed it - and its biggest trade union supporter seems to have stopped backing it. Why?

The two campaigns, though similar on the surface, were run in completely different ways and with different motivations.

Greenpeace, together with a few affiliated organisations in China, publicised the role suppliers to Nike, H&M and Adidas were playing in the discharge of toxic chemicals. So quickly that the whole campaign looked pre-rehearsed (as it might well have been), Nike, H&M and Adidas accepted the criticisms and set up the ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals) consortium.

C&A, Puma, Li Ning, Levi's, G-Star Raw and Jack Wolfskin have now also joined the ZDHC, while Limited Brands, M&S, Inditex, Fast Retailing, Benetton and Esprit have committed to the Detox Challenge. Of those international brands targeted by Greenpeace, only Gap, Mango and PVH have yet to sign up.

The Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement (BFBSA), however, was severely criticised by major buyers the moment it was presented to them. While PVH has said it will sign, it won't provide any funding until at least three other major buyers also sign up to fund the agreement. PVH is still sitting on its contribution.

The BFBSA's supporters - the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) - have been pretty consistent in repeating their demands:

  • Inspections by trained fire safety experts operating independently of the brands and of the factories being inspected, and public reporting of the results of all inspections;
  • Mandatory repairs and renovations to address all identified hazards - and a requirement that brands must cease doing business with any supplier that refuses to make needed repairs and operate safely;
  • A central role for workers and unions, including worker-led safety committees in all factories and access to factories for unions to educate workers on how they can protect their rights and their safety, including their right to refuse unsafe work;
  • Contracts with suppliers that ensure sufficient financing and adequate pricing to cover the cost of eliminating deadly hazards and operating in a safe manner; and
  • A binding contract between the brands and worker representatives that make these commitments enforceable under Western laws - so the brands have to follow through, even if it means increased costs or longer turnaround times on orders.

The major brands were quick to reject it:

  • Wal-Mart rejected the plan because: "In most cases very extensive and costly modifications would need to be undertaken to some factories. It is not financially feasible";
  • Gap rejected it because: "We don't own these factories and we're not the exclusive brands. It would be a different picture if we owned the factories." Gap has since added that it is also unhappy about the risk of lawsuits in the US if any of this went wrong.
  • H&M, the biggest apparel buyer in Bangladesh, rejected it because it believes factories and local government in Bangladesh should be taking on the responsibility, according to Pierre Börjesson, manager of sustainability and social issues. "We have the responsibility in Bangladesh to improve the situation, but this is through educating suppliers," he said.

The actual plan - Which factories? How long? How much? - behind the Agreement was unclear in 2011, but its advocates claimed it wouldn't cost much. Somehow the idea got about that the cost to an individual company would be capped at $500,000 a year - but the activists have since added that they estimate it'll cost $3 bn, over five years, to make Bangladesh factories safe.

Buyers are now being asked to sign an immense open cheque, which may well undermine the profitability of their Bangladeshi procurement and send their orders somewhere else instead. And, with over 100 people a year being killed in Bangladesh garment fires, the BFBSA's five-year plan is unlikely to prevent more deaths while it is being implemented.

Gap and Wal-Mart have since published their own plans: immediate inspection of factories making their clothes, a very short period to get factories right, and some mechanism to help factories fund the works.

Wal-Mart will instantly dismiss (and publicise) any supplier using an unauthorised factory. The likelihood is that there won't be any more deaths in Bangladesh factories making for Wal-Mart once this process is worked through - which is likely to be about mid-2013 (no five-year plan there).

Trade union stance
Reaction by BFBSA supporters to Wal-Mart's plan was just to repeat that it's not the BFBSA. It is reasonable to assume this didn't impress Walmart - and it now looks like it isn't even impressing the main garment industry unions.

After the Tazreen Fashion fire in November 2012, the BFBSA was the solution proposed by IndustriALL, the federation of 217 major trade unions worldwide representing workers in the garment and textile industries. But by 28 January, when IndustriALL reacted to the Smart Garments fire, it had changed its stance.

"We invite all major international brands, national employers and the government of Bangladesh to start an urgent discussion with us on a concrete plan of action," it said earlier this week.

"It must include strict health and safety regulations, efficient inspection and union participation in workplace cooperation, ensuring freedom of association in line with internationally recognised ILO labour standards, and a programme to raise minimum wages to at least living wage levels in the country."

Few major buyers would disagree with the new IndustriALL requirements, which will be discussed at a meeting convened by the UN's International Labor Organization on Sunday (3 February). But BFBSA's insistence on supplier publication, buyer funding, legal liability in a Western country, higher prices, and worker control of policy have all now disappeared. Why?

One crucial reason for the shift in IndustriALL's objectives is that buyers are more likely to sign up to a common programme that embodies them. Representing workers throughout the world, IndustriALL's 217 affiliates are used to wanting advance on lots of fronts, getting progress on some, and coming back to argue for the others later.

BFBSA's tactic of just constantly repeating its "demands" won't save lives if no-one's listening.

With broadly similar programmes now being operated by Wal-Mart, Gap, H&M and Inditex - and generally endorsed by IndustriALL - there's a real possibility of common standards being imposed by the major buyers, in cooperation with Bangladesh's trade associations and government.

There will doubtless be some disagreement and backsliding, but it is also likely that deaths in fires will decline substantially, and relatively quickly.

Detox campaign success
Which brings us back to Greenpeace's success in corralling the major brands into its Detox programme. How did it do it?

Greenpeace has been successfully campaigning to change how companies and governments behave for over 40 years, and the Detox campaign reflects this.

  • Strategic planning. Detox first targeted companies most likely to buy into the campaign, then used this momentum to target the group most likely to be shamed into joining by the action of the first group. For the past two months, BFBSA has been on a crusade against Wal-Mart, even though it had already rejected the BFBSA and has little influence on other apparel retailers or consumers. But Wal-Mart is so widely hated by the US worker activist community that the temptation to attack the retailer proved irresistible.
  • Message planning. In a world where someone's always campaigning for something, just repeating your message isn't enough. Detox staged newsworthy events outside its target companies and ensured they got the attention of the papers, TV shows and websites their customers follow. BFBSA just kept telling the activist community how horrible Wal-Mart was.
  • Attack the sin, not the sinner. Practically every word the Detox Challenge campaign used about the damage caused by toxic discharges would make me want to persuade my boss to sign up. Most people working for Nike or H&M enjoy the experience. They're upset to hear about the damage their company is implicated in. But they'd be even more upset to be told how evil they and their bosses were: which was pretty much the only thing the BFBSA communicated.
  • Understand your target's motivation. Decision makers in major corporations are motivated to make money. Complaining that Nike or H&M makes too much money isn't going to get them to change policies - but emphasising the damage their policies cause will stimulate change. Everyone I know in this industry has been horrified at the fires over the past four months and wanted to do something. They rejected the BFBSA proposals because they simply weren't realistic.
  • Propose an achievable programme. Greenpeace got retailers and brands to approach detoxifying the apparel supply chain like any other product improvement: set objectives, timescales and milestones and leave the businesses to get on with it. The underlying argument was that for the brands concerned, a toxic supply chain would undermine their profitability in the long run - whether by alienating customers, demoralising staff or distracting management from the daily business. BFBSA was told in April 2011 that its programme wouldn't fly; by not listening, the following two years have simply been wasted.

So what now? Obviously never say never, and who knows what might happen next to change attitudes. But BFBSA advocates have been silent since IndustriALL in effect withdrew support.

The Parliament of the EU (where most Bangladeshi garments end up) endorsed the BFBSA in mid-January - but by the end of the month the EU Vice President and Trade Commissioner were simply saying: "European and international companies need to do more to promote better health and safety standards in garment factories in Bangladesh, in line with internationally recognised guidelines on corporate social responsibility."

Action plans
The BFBSA now seems a dead duck. Brands, factories and the Bangladesh government will start work on action plans to eliminate unsafe factories, suppliers using them and disgraceful practices like locking security gates, and to ensure factory upgrading. They'll improve the ability of workers and managers to react effectively to fires. Unions will start being recognised.

And we'll see movement to better wages. Factory owners won't like that, but rapid wage inflation almost everywhere else in Asia means decent wages in Bangladesh will have less impact on garment competitiveness than a year ago.

On the other hand, buyers taking a tougher line with non-compliant factories will make unions and activists increasingly critical about what happens when those factories go out of business. Finding a mechanism for guaranteeing redundancy pay to workers at bankrupt factories will move higher up the list of major compliance issues that buyers have to address.

It's already a live issue for workers in Cambodia, Indonesia and Turkey, but has made little impact in the West, outside US college campuses.

If Western activists are to make any progress here, they'll need to move on from mass emails and a few demonstrators outside a handful of shops. However, if those activists continue to plan and carry out their campaigns the way the BFBSA advocates did, the redundancy pay issue will get nowhere.

If they take as their model Greenpeace's strategic planning, newsworthy tactics and uncanny ability to motivate their target without causing alienation, a lot of potentially impoverished garment workers will be a lot better off.

Click on the following link for a comment from labour groups on the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement (BFBSA) campaign: The BFBSA can make a mark on factory safety.