If there existed any question about the effectiveness of boycotts, recent actions taken across the retail industry by both consumers and brands should remove any doubt. The performance of Ivanka Trump’s fashion line plummeted as her father’s presidential campaign gained momentum, leading major retailers such as Nordstrom to pull the plug on her products not long after his inauguration. The outdoor industry recently flexed its activist muscle, with brands such as Patagonia, Polartec and Arc-teryx pulling out of the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, Utah to protest Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s resolution to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument. The move has kickstarted an important conversation about public lands, their economic benefits and the need to moving the trade show to a state whose values align with the industry’s own.
Now, fast fashion giants H&M, Zara parent company Inditex, Gap, C&A, VF Corporation, Next and Tchibo have announced that they will not be attending the Dhaka Apparel Summit — hosted by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) — in response to recent labor issues in Bangladesh, including the repression of labor groups by the Bangladeshi government and factory owners. The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which was scheduled to speak at the event, has also pulled out of the Summit.
“ETI recognizes the importance of the Apparel Summit to the future of the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the current intimidation of workers and their representatives is at odds with a progressive industry looking to secure the sustainable development of the sector,” said ETI’s executive director Peter McAllister.
Companies taking part in the boycott and who represent billions of dollars in trade hope that the move will highlight the seriousness of the situation. Bangladesh relies heavily on the garment industry, which constitutes 80 percent of the country’s exports.
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“Clearly our global labor campaign #EveryDayCounts #WagesNotJail targeting the brands linked to this repression is having an impact. With this boycott of BGMEA’s summit, leading brands are sending a clear message to the BGMEA and the Bangladesh authorities: unless all detainees are released, unsubstantial charges are dropped and other acts of intimidation and harassment of trade unions are stopped, they cannot credibly participate in a summit on 'sustainable growth’ of the industry,” said Miriam van Heugten of the Clean Clothes Campaign.
The boycott stems from a strike that took place in December in the country’s Ashulia region. Garment workers gathered to demand better wages and treatment, but instead of their voices being heard, 34 union leaders, organizers and workers were arrested and detained, many for over eight weeks, despite the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing.
At least 1500 workers were dismissed from their jobs and police have closed down several trade union offices. While most of the detainees have since been released on bail (largely in response to international pressure), many continue to face criminal charges that carry the potential of long jail sentences and must make frequent court appearances — as many as nine times per month in some cases.
The BGMEA recently issued a statement in response to questions about how the government and the industry handled the strike. Rather than taking a position, the BGMEA has said that the incident has caused distrust in Bangladesh’s garment sector and will likely result in a loss of $100 million.
“We would like to reemphasize that the BGMEA is dedicated to the principle that no worker should be deprived from his or her constitutional rights. At the same time, people have to respect the law of the land,” BGMEA said in its statement.
The Dhaka Apparel Summit is an opportunity for global partners to discuss building a more sustainable apparel supply chain and is designed to attract a wide spectrum of attendees, including government representatives, economists, brands, employers and workers' representatives.