When an eight-storey building home to garment factories making goods for a host of international brands collapsed in Bangladesh this week, it killed 175 people and injured more than a thousand. It also sparked some understandable handwringing about modern consumer culture, fast fashion and the real price of an $8 t-shirt.
Picture of Joe Fresh garment found at site of Bangladesh factory collapse. twitter.com/cbcasithappens…
— As It Happens (@cbcasithappens) April 24, 2013
The two most prominent brands associated with the factories—Joe Fresh and the UK’s Primark—both quickly expressed shock and sadness, but as prominent players in the explosive fast-fashion marketplace many are questioning whether this is enough. But they were also quick to distance themselves as far as possible.
The complex, housing a bank and shopping mall, also included a factory that produced a small number of Joe Fresh apparel items for Loblaw — Joe Fresh (@JoeFresh) April 24, 2013
If past lessons from Apple and Nike are any indication, the third-party vendor excuse doesn’t pass the smell test with consumers. The brand extends from the store, to the advertising, right down the line to the person making the product. As Dom Caruso, president at ad agency Leo Burnett Canada tweeted:
In the age of transparency, Bangladesh bldg collapse is part of Joe Fresh brand. The supply chain isn’t invisible, it’s part of the brand. — Dom Caruso (@domcaruso) April 25, 2013
One brand sprinting to get out ahead of the flack is Sweden’s H&M. While it isn’t connected with the collapsed factories, the company is the biggest buyer of clothes made in Bangladesh and has for the first time released the names and addresses of all its suppliers. The company’s head of sustainability Helena Helmersson told Bloomberg Businessweek that in 2012 it audited 485 potential new factories and 25% didn’t make the cut because H&M “didn’t find the right mindset in terms of transparency.” That’s the key word here. Brands can not hide behind ignorance and consumers will not tolerate being kept in the dark. Joe Fresh has tried to stay on top of things as the story develops but statements like this, particularly after reports of ignored safety request—the building had illegally added storeys—raise more questions about the audit process than it answers.
All vendors pass regular audits to ensure that all products are being manufactured in a socially responsible way… — Joe Fresh (@JoeFresh) April 24, 2013
There is no easy way to get out from under a photo of your brand’s label under the rubble. Right now, all Joe Fresh can do is be as open and transparent as possible, while simultaneously navigating how this incident will impact both its operations and brand image.