Special report: Tragic collapse of Bangladesh factory raises tough questions for retailers

Hopefully like me, you can’t help but have been horrified by the tragedy that’s still unfolding in Bangladesh these past days. It calls into question how we in the west do business. It puts western practices into perspective and puts everyone’s ‘fair trade’ policies under scrutiny. And that’s a good thing. I read a recent article in Retail Week magazine that discusses this very topic and I felt it was appropriate to reassure our customers of the way we do things at WBC. Thankfully it’s very different from a lot of what goes on in the world today.

“The collapse of the building housing suppliers of well-known retailers has ignited debate about the responsibilities of businesses working with firms in developing countries.” Gemma Goldfingle

While most of the retailers we supply are small independent traders, our responsibilities to the people we partner with in India to produce your goods, remains the same. At WBC, we don’t rely on SEDEX certificates or outside agencies to vouch for our suppliers. We make sure we know our factories and suppliers personally. We make regular visits to our production units to see first-hand how our products are made, and to satisfy ourselves that conditions fit with what we would expect at WBC.

All our jute and cotton bags come from Kolkata, which is very close to the Bangladesh border. However, that is where the similarities end. Our production units could not be more different from the images we’ve been seeing on the television. Our original production unit is housed in a solid brick building in the heart of chaotic Kolkata.

Our original production facility in the Howrah District of Kolkata – the historical heart of the jute business

The family business has been based here for many years and they’re the only occupants in the building which is 100% owned by them. I make regular trips out there and have personally worked in the building several times this year. Not only is it safe and fit for purpose, but it has a lovely family vibe of skilled men and women, not unlike some of the artisan community projects we’re increasingly becoming involved with here in our Brixton neighborhood.

With the growth we’ve experienced in the last few years, we’re outgrowing these facilities, so investments has been made in land around 30km outside Kolkata. We’ve been excited to see the first of five purpose built single storey production units now open, with work starting on two more as I write this. Within three years, all five buildings will be operational. They’re something to be proud of and the bulk of our production will move there eventually. We recently published a series of videos ‘Inside our #bagsforlife making facility’ over on our YouTube channel, which gives an interesting peek inside.

First of five new production units built on land owned by our partners, 30km outside Kolkata in the village of Baduria

One of the stitching stations in the new production unit

The laminating machine in action

But it’s not only about buildings. Hand in hand with the way we produce, our employee relations are just as important to us and we’re proud to say they are second to none.  We pay over and above the going rates to ensure we attract the best employees, and most importantly, retain them. We rely on employees to produce your fabulous bags, because as artisans they are experts at what they do; they are the key ingredient and we treat them accordingly. Part of our policy is to ensure that a fair price is paid for our bags. And while we understand it’s a competitive world out there and you want to get the best bags for your budget, we are equally and unapologetically vocal about why WBC will never supply #bagsforlife at unsustainable prices.

It is the only way we can ensure conditions and investment can be kept at the levels required so that tragedies like this don’t ever happen. As we have seen in Bangladesh, the drive for cheaper and cheaper prices can have a disastrous, albeit unintended consequence. Be assured we will always work hard at WBC to ensure we never end up implicated in a tragedy like this, and our love and thoughts go out the men, women, families and the community who have lost their loved ones.

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