As is often the case, it takes a tragedy to bring about change. Yet in the aftermath of last year's Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, which claimed more than 1,100 lives, the business of clothing manufacturing looks an awful lot like it did before.
Following initial uproar over dilapidated conditions in Bangladeshi factories, the world's biggest retailers including Walmart and Inditex, which owns women's clothing retailer Zara, have stepped up their efforts to inspect for safety violations and structural failings. And though these checks have revealed fissures that could have triggered future disasters, the status quo at home remains largely intact.
"We definitely have a long way to go," says Michael Preysman, the founder of Everlane, an ecommerce company selling minimalist clothing that's based its business around the idea of "radical transparency"--broadcasting origin information like details about its production facilities, costs and markup. "At the end of the day, the only way stuff actually changes is if consumers want it to change."
Preysman notes that one of the main barriers to reform boils down to a matter of labeling. Consumers "look at the label and it says 'Made in China' or it says 'Made in Bangladesh.' But being made in Bangladesh doesn't really mean anything unless you know what factory it was made in," he says. "There are plenty of great factories in Bangladesh," and (obviously) some that aren't.
Perhaps as a sign of his frustration with the pace of change, Everlane took out a full-page ad in today's New York Times. The San Francisco-based company asks: "What do you know about your clothes?" Further, Everlane is pledging to match the first $10,000 it raises in a fund dedicated to supporting those affected by the disaster.
"We're doing our best by showing people where our factories are located," says Preysman. "But we hope consumers push other brands to do this more and more."
Scott Lachut, the director of research and strategy for the New York-based research and innovation firm PSFK, is more upbeat about the state of retail. "Consumers do pay attention to these sorts of disasters like Rana Plaza. I don't know if that directly impacts their immediate decisions around making purchases, but if those stories continue to pop up it can change the way people start thinking about those companies," he says.
Among other examples, Lachut notes that companies are increasingly looking into returning their production efforts stateside. "If you consider all of the costs associated with outsourcing things to foreign markets--the potential for strikes, disasters--it's becoming viable again to start manufacturing closer to home."
Plus, giant companies are similarly promising reforms. Intel, for instance, vowed to use "conflict-free" minerals in its chips going forward, while Apple said it would begin accepting its own products for recycling, free of charge.
For its part, Preysman says, Everlane would welcome more retailers taking up the torch of transparency, as that would put more pressure on factories to clean up their act. It would also mean that consumers would care more, he says. "The dream is to get people to think differently about how they buy things."