Canadians vow to boycott Joe Fresh, while company vows to improve conditions

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew

The instant reaction following the Bangladeshi building collapse that killed more than 220 garment factory workers, including some working on Canada’s Joe Fresh clothing line, was to boycott the companies that relied on those poor people working under terrible conditions.

It was the reaction on Facebook and Twitter, where people screamed at Loblaws Inc. and threatened to boycott their products.

“I will be shopping elsewhere from now on,” Fergus Lowry told the company on Facebook. “Although finding any clothing made be reputable retailers is very hard now a days.”

He was by far alone in the sentiments, and those who reacted this way certainly have their right to be outraged. Workers in the clothes factories operating in that eight-storey building knew conditions were bad, but they had no idea how bad.

They had no idea that the building’s owner had been warned that it was about to collapse, no idea they were sent in to work anyway. No idea that the financial benefit of having them hemming and sewing t-shirts and sweaters had been calculated and valued higher than their right to live.

End the process, was our response. Demand companies put an end to overseas manufacturing and come home. Boycott Joe Fresh. But there are some sober minds that suggest, if done properly, overseas manufacturing benefits everyone.

Kate Heartfield writes in the Ottawa Citizen:

Countries are emerging from poverty all around the world and industrialized, low-cost labour is one reason for that. Even if we could force countries such as China and Korea to revert to small-scale agriculture and rural poverty, why would we? The existence of a garment industry is not a sufficient condition for economic success; if it were, Haiti wouldn’t still be mired in poverty. But if anything ever helps Haiti rise out of that poverty, it will likely be its garment industry. As even bleeding hearts like Jeffrey Sachs and Nicholas Kristof have long argued, a sweatshop job is better than no job at all.

There is sound reasoning behind that. Even if boycotting Joe Fresh clothes would be enough for Loblaws to pull out of overseas manufacturing, it is just one face on a thousand-headed snake.

[ Related: How can you tell if your shirt was made in a sweatshop? ]

If you are able to cut every product manufactured overseas out of your life, all the power to you. But the rest of us have to consider that living conditions in places like Bangladesh are not going to be at a North American level. But that doesn't mean they have to be terrible.

The Worldwide Responsible Accreditation Program (WRAP) is focused on improving the “social responsibility” of garment manufacturers in places such as Bangladesh. By ensuring factories have good working conditions they believe a balance can be found that benefits both sides.

And if that strategy is going to be successful, companies with consciences will be paramount in the struggle. Which is why you almost (almost) have to appreciate Loblaws Inc.'s stance following the tragedy.

After a tepid first draft to its public stance, in which the company simply claimed it thought everything was fine, Loblaws admitted it hadn't done enough to live up to its own standards.

[ More Brew: Joe Fresh thought conditions at Bangladeshi factory were OK ]

In the more recent statement, Loblaws Inc. clarified the process it uses to choose overseas manufacturers. The company says it hired "international auditing firms" to inspect factories against their standards and don't work with those that don't measure up.

However:

Our audits align with those of industry around the world; however in light of the recent tragedies in Bangladesh we recognize that these measures do not address the issue of building construction or integrity. Loblaw is committed to finding solutions to this situation by expanding the scope of our requirements to ensure the physical safety of workers producing our products. We want to improve and we want to find a solution that helps stop these incidents from happening.

It should be noted that there already are such strategies in place, strategies such as the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which seeks to establish safety standards and oversight for Bangladeshi manufacturers.

Imagine if Loblaws brass had that state of mind when they first established a manufacturing presence in Bangladesh. Imagine if those workers actually had safe and healthy working conditions.

The company promises to do better. Here's hoping they do. Because if they leave, someone else will just take their place.