A group of North American retailers has gone its own way on strengthening safety efforts at Bangladesh garment factories, setting up a new initiative said to offer a long-term solution that also offers flexibility to "respond to an ever-changing environment."

The new Safer Factories Initiative will set out strategic goals to improve worker safety in Bangladesh and around the world.

But unlike the separate Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which has this week been backed by more than 30 - mainly European - fashion brands and retailers, it is not legally-binding. US retailer Gap Inc this week said it was unhappy about the way disputes will be resolved under the accord, and the potential risk of lawsuits in the US if anything goes wrong.

"Given the global nature of the apparel and retail industry, applying a legal standard is a very complex proposition," the Safer Factories Initiative said.

The new pact also avoids the accountability issues of funding, compared with the accord, which requires signatory brands to contribute up to $500,000 per year.

Other differences are that the Safer Factories Initiative (SFI) includes short, medium, and long-term goals, whereas the accord sets out a five-year plan. 

And while the accord has been backed by companies including H&M, Inditex, C&A, PVH, Tchibo, Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Abercrombie & Fitch, who between them are estimated to source from more than 1000 of Bangladesh's 5000 garment factories, the SFI aims to cover all apparel factories in the country.

The SFI has been launched by the North American Bangladesh Worker Safety Working Group, a collaboration of five US and Canadian apparel and retail trade associations, formed in January 2013.

It aims to build on the "extensive work" already being carried out by brands and retailers - including announced and unannounced factory visits, audits, fire drills, fire prevention training, and safety inspections - but also looks at how this can be sustained into the future.

It adds: "The Safer Factories Initiative understands that flexibility is required to address a broad array of worker safety issues and enables brands and retailers to respond swiftly and effectively to an ever-changing environment."

Another observation is that improving worker safety requires "a broader proposal...that more effectively recognises and addresses the myriad and complex issues underlying the factory safety issue in Bangladesh."

Short-term objectives of the Safer Factories Initiative will focus on efforts to educate workers and factory management about fire prevention and workplace safety. Workers will also be key in reporting workplace safety concerns.

And buyers will be encouraged to develop mechanisms to share information on training so that it can reach as many workers and factories as possible.

There are also plans to ramp up efforts to assess factories for building and fire safety - including work to develop and implement an industry standard on fire and building safety and conduct assessments of all factories based on those standards.

But this requires buyers to work in conjunction with the Bangladeshi government, Bangladeshi factory owners, and Bangladeshi workers, the stakeholders say.

Looking at the longer-term, the coalition sees the need for mechanisms to establish fire and building safety compliant factories, qualified training programmes, and the strictest enforcement of building and safety codes.

The initiative also sets in motion the creation of a viable, equitable, and sustainable funding mechanism devoted to training, upgrades of existing factory structures, and ensuring the safety of new construction.

The trade associations that make up the North American Bangladesh Worker Safety Working Group include the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), the Canadian Apparel Federation (CAF), the National Retail Federation (NRF), the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), and the United States Association of Importers of Textile and Apparel (USA-ITA).

See also:
What does the new Bangladesh safety accord entail?
Bangladesh safety plan still raises many questions