Benetton is an Italian fashion line known for its social activism, including its creation of The UNHATE Foundation, which, according to its website, “seeks to contribute to the creation of a new culture against hate, building on Benetton’s underpinning values.”
Those “underpinning values”, however, are being questioned in light of the company’s denial that it had any ties to the garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh, that collapsed last week, tragically killing at least 377 people. The company tweeted on April 24: “In reference to the tragic news on the collapse of the building in Bangladesh, Benetton Group wants to clarify that none of the companies involved are suppliers to Benetton Group or any of its brands.” .
Since then, however, strong evidence suggesting Benetton clothing was being manufactured at the factory (known as Rana Plaza) has been uncovered. Photos taken of the rubble by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse clearly show shirts with “United Colors of Benetton” labels. Also, one of the manufacturers that had been based at the factory, New Wave Bottoms, lists Benetton as a client, and labor rights activists said they found documents linking Benetton to the factory while they were digging through the debris.
In light of this hard-to-ignore evidence, the company released a statement on April 29, which said: “A one-time order was completed and shipped out of one of the manufacturers involved several weeks prior to the accident. Since then, this subcontractor has been removed from our supplier list.”
While Benetton is far from the only big-name company connected to Rana Plaza (Wal-Mart, Ireland’s Primark, and Canada’s Joe Fresh all made clothing there), the company’s dedication to social activism — coupled with its initial denial — seem to be making it a prime target for public ire.
We cannot presume to know whether the complete denial was a genuine oversight of a one-time transaction or an intentional fib, but the company’s attempt to distance itself from such terrible news has left little room for back-peddling. While it would have been unfortunate to have its name associated, even in the smallest way, with such a tragedy, Benetton likely wouldn’t have received nearly this level of attention and outrage had it been upfront in the first place. At worst, its handling of the situation appears dishonest, and at best the company comes off as hypocritical.
We understand the challenges brands face during highly publicized tragedies, and that the dos and don’ts of responding to crises on social media are still very much works in progress. But in this case, it seems clear that a company’s first instinct to self-preserve by distancing itself from a controversial and tragic subject may not always be the best strategy.