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Western Clothing Brands Escape Blame in Deadly Factory Collapse

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(Pic via Associated Press/A.M. Ahad)

It was one of 2013′s most tragic stories—and it should have been one of the year’s biggest PR disasters as well.

Unfortunately, as we enter 2014 it looks like the Western clothing companies involved in April’s Bangladeshi factory collapse have washed their hands of it in every possible way.

The fall of the Rana Plaza factory killed more than 1,100 people, but most of the companies that produced clothing there have not just tried to distance themselves from the accident: they’ve also refused to contribute to a fund set up to benefit the victims and their families.

The list of brands not participating includes every American company involved—and that fact is, quite frankly, shameful.

The excuse now used by clothing makers like Mango is that the legal relationship between Phantom Tac (the company that operated the building) and the brands that outsourced work there had not been “formalized” at the time of the accident. People on the ground see it differently, saying that “work to make samples for Mango had already begun when Rana Plaza collapsed”. Mango even sent buyers to the factory to inspect and approve of working conditions there.

Surprise, surprise.

The worst part of the Rana Plaza story is that, in the words of The New York Times, it could have been “regarded as an unlikely attempt to prove that a Bangladeshi factory could be socially responsible and make a profit.”

Now the factory’s owner sits in jail, and the companies involved have attempted to brush it all off as a “cost of doing business” issue. Of course we understand that the pressures of the retail world force companies to value efficiency above all other things and use cheap overseas labor to compete; this is nothing new. But circumstances like those surrounding Rana Plaza facilitate co-dependent relationships between global businesses and local syndicates that skirt the law at every turn. And we didn’t even mention child labor…

It’s a lose-lose situation.

We hate to post such a negative story on the last day of the year, especially since nothing indicates that the circumstances behind this tragedy have changed enough to prevent it from happening again in 2014. But we also hope that the companies involved—and yes, they very much were involved—choose to act more responsibly in the years to come. At the very least, they could acknowledge the role they played in the tragedy and contribute to the victims’ fund.

What can consumers do to help? We can refuse to buy clothing from brands that engage in such practices; the market, in this case, will not correct itself.

Here’s hoping for a better 2014.

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