A series of social compliance audits had failed to uncover structural problems in the five-story Rana Plaza building, which collapsed on April 24, 2013. (Just hours after workers were threatened with termination if they failed to enter the facility.) It was reportedly the deadliest garment-factory accident in history.
Several major apparel brands and retailers, including J.C. Penney, Benetton and Carrefour, were reported to have products being manufactured at the Rana Plaza factory. Some claimed not to know that they had any connection to the location, blaming subcontractors for doing business there without their knowledge.
Keeping track of working conditions at offshore factories is a huge challenge for brands. By some counts there are an estimated 11,000 garment factories in Bangladesh alone, many of them small and off the grid. All are supposed to adhere to minimum standards for safety and humane treatment of workers. First, though, they must be identified.
Now, there’s an effort afoot to digitally map every garment factory in Bangladesh. It’s being carried out by BRAC University, a private institution within the country, and sponsored by C&A Foundation. The goal of the three-year undertaking is to assemble key information about each factory, including business name, GPS coordinates, business license, safety inspections and apparel brands served.
Sourcemap is providing the mapping software platform that will generate and publicly post digital visualizations of the relevant data. Chief executive officer Leonardo Bonanni was instrumental in designing the latest version of the Higg Index, a tool for allowing brands, retailers and manufacturers to assess their sustainability performance.
Staff members from BRAC University are using the Sourcemap platform as they travel throughout Bangladesh to personally visit every apparel factory in the country. As of late April, they had only covered around 1,000 of the 11,000 locations to be identified, with the remainder to be added over the next three years.
Bangladesh’s apparel industry is huge, employing some 4 million people in dye houses, fabric mills, cutting and sewing operations, embellishments and print locations. Complicating BRAC University’s efforts is the lack of an up-to-date factory list. In the past, it has been cobbled together from government licensing groups and brands’ supplier rosters.
The effort to date has been “relatively spotty and top-down,” says Bonanni. The new initiative represents a first attempt to standardize and harmonize the full list of factories.
To achieve that task, BRAC University is sending out 40 individuals on motorcycles to canvas every neighborhood, starting with the capital city of Dhaka and radiating out from there. In addition to drawing from existing lists, they’ll be talking to neighborhood locals and looking for signs that identify operations that might have gone undetected up to now.
The goal, says Bonanni, is “to make the Bangladesh apparel sector transparent, and be recognized globally as official.” Illegal subcontracting at Rana Plaza resulted in many foreign brands losing faith in the country as a legitimate source of offshore production.
Beyond gathering basic data such as exact location, the assessors will be asking for licenses and confirmation of certificates attesting to compliance with international standards on safety and working conditions. They’ll also be gathering information on social compliance, including the number of women working at each facility, along with the presence of adequate bathrooms and nurseries on site.
Given the many tiers of suppliers that make up a typical global supply chain, it’s not always easy to confirm the identity of the ultimate brand or retailer for which a given item is being made. For BRAC University team members, it might come down to examining labels sewn into the clothes, Bonanni says.
In theory, factories should be eager to be identified as legitimate sources of production, as a means of securing more business. But nailing down the specifics of social and safety compliance could be a much tougher job. Moreover, canvassers will have to sort out situations where a single factory might be listed as three or four separate businesses, or have another location down the street.
Basic information such as GPS coordinates can be gathered without entering the building. Other data requires access to the operation within. In such cases, factory owners will generally be given advance notice of a team’s desire to inspect the premises, Bonanni says.
Whether that practice will result in an honest evaluation of working conditions remains to be seen. The BRAC University team members will likely get most of their information from management, he says, although local unions can speak with workers to get a fuller picture of the operation.
Having obtained the necessary data on Bangladeshi factories, BRAC University faces the additional challenge of keeping it current. Small businesses, which account for a substantial share of the country’s factory capacity, spring up or die all the time. And the degree of compliance within existing facilities can change as well. Having been assigned online profiles, factory managers will themselves be expected to keep them up to date, Bonanni says. The combination of their own efforts and continued scrutiny by brands and independent groups is expected to guarantee adherence to standards over time. Or so goes the theory.
No one wants to see another Rana Plaza. Growing pressure by consumers could further serve to keep brands and retailers on their toes when it comes to ensuring visibility of their multi-tier supply chains. Expect the Bangladesh initiative to serve as a model for similar efforts around the world. As Bonanni puts it: “It’s the new normal for mapping your supply chain.”