There are many immortal song lyrics but, for someone who lived through the 80’s, few can trump The Clash’s iconic “Should I stay or should I go?” anthem.
Should I stay or should I go?
If I stay it will be trouble
If I go it will be double
Strangely those lyrics rang through my head as I read about the terrible aftermath of the garment building collapse in Bangladesh. Over 400 killed, dozens still missing and a population rightfully boiling over at government ineptitude and mass corruption.
Many of the Western retailers who used these facilities to manufacture dirt-cheap clothing are in crisis control mode. Benefit funds are being set up for survivors and their families, supply chain experts and lawyers are reviewing their governance policies and social media is having a field day. The same pundits who likely never questioned how a shirt at Primark in the UK or Loblaws in Canada could really cost under $10 are now righteously indignant. Many are probably the same folks who never questioned if their $5 Sunday roast was Sirloin or Shergar.
All these reactions are entirely appropriate though.
If competitive pressures have driven you to find the lowest-cost-per-unit source on the planet, it doesn’t absolve you of accountability. Regardless of whether your customers couldn’t find Bangladesh on the map, you still owe those workers, YOUR workers, the same rights & standards of safety as the folks down the hall at HQ.
My question is what now?
Should you stay or should you go?
This week Walt Disney elected to go.
Others are electing to stay but are doubling down on efforts to ensure “this kinda tragedy never happens again”. Noble sentiment but, cynically, I wonder what they could’ve proactively done before this happened.
Having grown up in Southern Africa in the 70’s and 80’s this question is even more personal for me. In the 70’s and 80’s hundreds of organizations left South Africa in boycott of the torrid politics of apartheid.
They were entirely justified doing so. No-one can argue the lighter side of apartheid.
And many companies freely elected to not financially support apartheid by paying wages and taxes to a government system they – and more importantly their customers and shareholders – abhorred.
However several companies did stay.
And, strangely the one’s that stayed garnered a significant level of loyalty for bucking the common, populist trend.
There was also significant debate about who was ultimately affected by this disinvestment. British PM John Major famously said “disinvestment would feed white consciences outside South Africa, not black bellies within it.”
For the direct jobs that inevitably disappear along with Mickey Mouse & Donald Duck, what about all the infrastructure that those jobs and facilities create? What is going to replace the income of a family that used to make those infamous $10 shirts?
For those manufacturers that stay, do they believe they can create enough oversight and review measures to change a systemic level of corner-cutting and government corruption? An embedded system that turns a blind eye to the welfare of their poorest citizens? Are those manufacturers prepared to increase their cost base just to bring all these facilities up to Western safety standards? Are you prepared to absorb those cost increases?
What about you?
Two months from now are you going to applaud those companies who left Bangladesh because of it’s pitiful safety record…or are you going to moan on Facebook that your latest shirt now cost you $15?
We can all demand higher levels of Corporate Social Responsibility…but, there’s also Individual Social Responsibility too.