The online petitions are multiplying, as consumers worldwide react with shock and horror to last month’s deaths of more than 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh toiling in conditions that might have made a Victorian-era chronicler cringe. Several of the world’s largest retailers – at least, those of them that happen to be based in Europe – have lined up to sign a legally binding agreement to underwrite the cost of bringing other such factories up to an acceptable workplace standard, and to oversee those repairs and monitor working conditions on an ongoing basis.
For now, let’s work on the assumption that companies like H&M, Primark and the Dutch chain C&A are motivated by the same kind of distress that you and I feel when we see the images from Dhaka’s collapsed Rana Plaza building or read reports of working conditions there. Give them credit – rightly or wrongly – for being motivated by of a desire to ensure that such a catastrophe never happens again and not by fear that consumers will realize that their suppliers worked in buildings like Rana Plaza – or others not too dissimilar throughout Southeast Asia and other garment industry hubs – paying employees a minimum wage of $37 a month.
Even so, the faceoff between activists and socially responsible investors on the one hand and companies like Wal-Mart Stores and Gap (both of which chose not to go along with the legally-binding pact among retailers) sheds new light on a problem that has bedeviled thousands of other publicly-traded companies over the decades: how to deal with what are known as “externalities.”
An externality, in the jargon of economists, is what happens when a company makes a business decision that has positive or negative consequences for the broader world. A company that pollutes, for instance, is creating a negative externality for those that live near the plant that is destroying the air quality or that draws water from the sources that have been contaminated by its mining operations, for instance. A company that voluntarily takes on extra safety costs that exceed the standards its competitors adhere to or that underwrites the cost of education and training for its workforce when its rivals don’t, is an example of the flip side of the coin.
Companies can’t avoid wrestling with externalities. All of them walk a more or less narrow line, trying to understand when the cost of preventing a negative “externality” is worth whatever consequences follow in its wake. Regulation is one issue that can affect the decisions they make: The rise of environmentalism and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 made the consequences of polluting potentially more serious; companies trying to balance the costs to themselves of polluting or paying to dispose of their waste in a less harmful way suddenly found the playing field tilted in favor of the latter. In other cases, social trends and consumer choices play a similar role: this time there’s a carrot rather than a stick at play.
A publicly traded company like Wal-Mart or Gap Stores has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders to maximize its returns. The events in Bangladesh have highlighted a giant conundrum for them – one that even before the collapse of the Rana Plaza they undoubtedly wrestled with. Clearly, apparel retailers have been eager to move their facilities from one country to another: as wages and thus production costs climbed in China, to keep the prices of their t-shirts and jeans stable and competitive in North America and Europe, they shifted operations to Cambodia and Bangladesh. To the extent that they know that being too insistent – or more insistent than their peers -- on questions of safety, child labor or living wages will mean higher costs and lower profit margins, it always has been easier to try to avoid knowing about some of these issues.
Will anything really change now that the true cost of all our inexpensive t-shirts – externalities included – has been made so dramatically apparent? Real change will require more than petitions and pacts. It will demand virtual unanimity on the part of consumers – each of us being willing to pay more for the clothes we buy, reflecting the higher costs associated with those higher manufacturing standards. The reason that apparel manufacturing was shifted offshore, and then to increasingly low-wage countries like Bangladesh, is that we demonstrated that we weren’t when it counted most: when we went shopping. We can’t just tell companies like the Gap that we won’t buy garments with such a high non-financial price tag associated with them, we have to demonstrate our willingness to do so, over and over again. Those companies need to be convinced that if they don’t take a hit on profit margins or costs, they will take an even bigger one on sales.
Wal-Mart has decided not to sign on to the European plan, and instead intends to hire an outside auditing firm to inspect the Bangladeshi factories that produce garments for sale in its stores. We’ll be able to inspect the results – posted on its website – by June 1, and the company has said it will insist that factory owners undertake work to remedy any safety issues at their own expense, or face the prospect of being cut from the list of Wal-Mart suppliers. (Wal-Mart acknowledges that these renovations may show up in higher costs.) Here we have the whole conundrum in one example. Do we – and does Wal-Mart – believe that an outside firm can do a thorough and accurate job inspecting nearly 300 separate facilities in the next two weeks? Given that whistleblowers report violations that inspectors routinely miss even in North America, I’m skeptical.
Then there is the question of Wal-Mart’s request to companies falling short of their standard to remedy the matter. In what time frame? Who will judge that it is done adequately, and that this is a sustained effort? And while Wal-Mart says a company may be axed from its supplier list for not complying, it doesn’t say that this will be automatic. And what happens down the line, when Wal-Mart realizes that because of those renovations, their supplier is no longer the lowest-cost producer? Will it switch to a cheaper provider – and will that provider be held to the same high standard?
It boils down to the willingness of companies like Wal-Mart to accept the possibility of lower margins, and to the willingness of consumers to pay higher prices. And for all these well-intentioned petitions to work, everyone needs to be on the same page. There can’t be any incentive for Wal-Mart to move to another, lower-cost jurisdiction, or any ability for a supplier whose safety and employment standards are subpar to play one European retailer in search of lower costs against another.
The same is true at the consumer end of the spectrum. When Wal-Mart released its earnings this week, the company’s chief financial officer described its consumers as being financially “stretched” in his effort to explain why same-store sales slid 1.4 percent in the company’s first quarter. At Gap, whose stock price has soared this year, one of the segments that has led sales growth has been Old Navy, the division dedicated to making the cheapest possible versions of styles seen elsewhere. A month ago, a cheaper version of a maxi dress being sold for about $75 at Gap was spotted on the racks at Old Navy for $30 – marked down to $15.
This is a difficult and emotionally charged issue – but while the cost in human lives in Bangladesh is dramatic, the issue itself is far from new. Over and over again, enough North American consumers have demonstrated their ability to shove to the back of their minds the working conditions of those who make the t-shirts they buy in countries they likely will never visit that it has been possible for retailers to view insisting on real and lasting improvements in working conditions in those countries as an overly costly externality. Only a years-long effort and the willingness to change our consumption habits will force a real change in corporate behavior.