Op-Ed | In the Face of Continuing Injustice, a Socially Responsible Garment Factory

In response to the continuing injustices suffered by garment workers globally, tougher regulations and more stringent factory audits are not enough, says Rob Broggi, CEO and founding partner of Industrial Revolution II, a new kind of garment factory founded on the principles of socially responsible manufacturing.

Inside Industrial Revolution II's garment factory in Haiti | Source: Industrial Revolution II

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The recent tragedy at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where over 1100 factory workers were killed in a senseless accident, was just the most recent travesty in a long line of injustices for garment workers globally. However, it was the first of its kind to attract global press coverage on a large enough scale to finally spark mass consumer awareness around the significant problems plaguing this industry.

For hundreds of years, the textiles industry has proven to be an effective economic foundation for many developing countries, including the United States. But the approach has rarely been a responsible one. From the earliest days of exploiting slave labour, to the more recent “race to the bottom,” where apparel companies speed around the globe in search of the cheapest labour and most lax regulations, it has been a deeply flawed business.

Public outrage over Rana Plaza has created a scramble to put tougher regulations in place, and many brands are reactively beefing up manufacturing compliance protocols for their vendors. But while more stringent factory audits may help at the margin, the impact will most certainly be limited. Just last year, a Pakistani plant received the prestigious SA8000 compliance certification just days before a fire killed over 300 workers who were trapped in the building due to blocked exits, which were probably locked minutes after the auditors left. A longer checklist is not the answer. In order for real change to happen, the mindset among industry players and consumers alike must completely shift into a new phase of awareness and understanding.

At Industrial Revolution II, we believe that both brands and consumers are ready for this transition, and that the tragedy in Bangladesh may have been the catalyst needed to tip that first domino required for any paradigm shift to occur. Consumers have the ability to demand that the brands they buy make more responsible sourcing decisions, using their collective wallet as both the carrot and the stick. There is a lot of power at the top of the chain, and as brands increasingly realise that consumers care deeply about this issue, real change will begin to happen.

Former executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America Fern Mallis, who sits on our advisory board, recently suggested at the UN World Fashion Forum that the first step in the right direction is through education and awareness, pulling back the veil and revealing how the machine actually works. Make no mistake, consumers bear some of the responsibility here by relentlessly demanding cheaper and cheaper clothing, but purchasing behavior could start to change if more people realise what that $0.99 rollback on a t-shirt actually means for the people at the bottom of the chain.

We are confident that consumers are on the way to caring as much about how the clothing they buy is made as how it looks and is priced. We are still in the first inning of this trend, but the genie is out of the bottle, and any player who fights this notion is firmly stuck in Plato’s Cave. It is our responsibility as a company to hasten this paradigm shift along its adoption curve and to demonstrate that there are better approaches and practical solutions.

IRII recently completed the construction of a 35,000 square foot factory in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with annual capacity to cut, sew and digitally print up to five million knit and woven units. We provide manufacturing services to apparel brands and fashion designers who value responsible sourcing practices as much as beautiful production results. By carefully investing 50 percent of our profit into programs for employees, their families and our neighbours, we can create a sustainable cycle of company and community prosperity.

These investments are not charity, nor are we simply sharing the wealth. They directly contribute to a healthy, productive, consistent workforce, capable of delivering beautiful production results while also providing flexibility, versatility and high efficiency. This is obviously great for our company, but it’s also good for our customers who gain the ability to highlight IRII as a key part of their ethical sourcing initiatives, which will become increasingly valuable as consumer awareness matures. Pioneer clients like Threads 4 Thought and Boxercraft recognise this powerful benefit. It’s good for business and it’s good business. Everyone benefits along the entire chain.

The garment manufacturing industry poses many challenges and is rife with problems, but practical solutions exist, and an emerging movement is quietly afoot. We can absolutely create a world where both brands and factory owners are profitable, consumers find value, and workers attain satisfaction and security.

This is not an impossible or utopian goal. When something seems out of reach, sometimes all you have to do is shift your feet.

Rob Broggi is CEO and founding partner of Industrial Revolution II, a garment factory founded on the principle of socially responsible manufacturing.