The factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh this April is by no means the first tragedy to strike the garment industry in recent years—but it does look like the culmination of an ongoing PR challenge that could reshape the way major clothing brands market their products. The earliest evidence of this change comes on social media, where companies that had operations in the factory have already begun responding to the demands of consumers and labor activists.
The New York Times reports that many businesses and industry groups now plan to follow the food industry’s example by offering the public more detailed information about how and where their clothes are made. H&M and Zara have agreed to sign a new “factory safety accord,” and major names like Disney, Nike, and Walmart may follow with campaigns designed to appropriate the “green,” “organic,” and “fair trade” themes favored by food and household goods marketers in recent years. The purpose of this material, of course, will be to highlight the brands’ corporate social responsibility efforts and distance them from horrific accidents like the one in Bangladesh.
It’s nothing new for fashion: upstarts like American Apparel began using their own “fair trade” practices as key selling points some time ago. Yet, despite AA’s success, retailers like Maggie’s Organics and Everlane (tagline “Luxury Basics. Radical Transparency.”) remain few and far between.
Not for long.
Different brands have responded to the growing public demand for change in different ways. Disney backed away from the controversy before the most recent accident by ending all production in Bangladesh after a series of deadly fires struck its factories in 2012.
Others tried to get out in front of the story. Reports tied affordable apparel producer/J.C. Penney partner Joe Fresh to the factory, and the company used its social forums to control the damage by shelving promotional messages and addressing fans’ questions about safety procedures.
We want to share that we will be providing compensation for the families of the victims who worked for our supplier: facebook.com/joefresh/posts…
— Joe Fresh (@JoeFresh) April 29, 2013
The biggest industry shifts, however, will happen on the marketing front: expect CSR messages about labor practices to appear more prominently in future campaigns. Some of the (few) companies that can claim official “fair trade” status have already used the story as a “teachable moment”:
The key question: How will big garment brands change their marketing and PR messages in the months and years to come? Expect more industry leaders to adopt Patagonia/TOMS-style strategies that focus on CSR efforts and charity programs over price points.
Patagonia also uses digital content to promote its own fair labor “factory monitoring” and environmental sustainability practices. In one particularly creative example, the company’s “Worn Wear” tumblr page leverages user-generated content to illustrate the stories behind fans’ hand-me-down Patagonia products.
Brands must maintain a delicate balance to serve Americans’ conflicting desires: the public wants inexpensive, high-quality clothing, but we’d rather support companies with solid CSR track records. Market research has long shown that we’re willing to pay more for products created according to certain environmental and labor standards—but not too much more.
We can’t guess when industry practices will change or how many brands will risk cutting into their bottom lines to make their overseas factories safer. But PR and marketing departments around the world have already received the message: adapt and update your message or fall behind.