While top retailers hang back over liability fears, the Bangladesh government lacks cars to even get inspectors to garment factories like the ones whose recent collapse killed 1,127 workers. Meanwhile, we consumers keep the system going because we like to save money. And, hey, how do we know where that shirt or jeans were made?
Meanwhile, social app developers let us share with an eager waiting world how far we jogged today. Webcams let us monitor our houses or nannies from work. RFID (radio frequency identification) tags let owners track the location of plastic shipping pallets lest they be chopped up by thieving recyclers.
If We Can Put a Man on the Moon…
If we can do all that, why can’t we use information technology, the Web and portable sensors to show customers, while they’re in the store, whether the shirt, jeans or whatever they’re looking at were made in a decent factory or a sweatshop?
Some studies have estimated that it would add as little as ten cents to the price of a piece of clothing to prevent disasters like building collapses. Would you pay that? Would you go further and spring for an extra dollar or Euro to add air conditioning and clean air?
Let’s say we’re real sports and make it the equivalent of $2US (about the price of the average Starbucks) to a piece of clothing or smartphone. Set aside $1 to improve factory conditions, and split the other $1 as additional profit between the factory and the retailer, just to keep everyone motivated.
Workers get better conditions, factories and retailers make more money, and we consumers get to brag about our generosity. The whole system is voluntary. It could also be a monumental PR and branding coup for the consulting, technology, retail and social media outfits that teamed up to make it work.
Oh, Yeah, the Details
Some really smart people could come up with a more elegant way to do this. But here are some building blocks:
- Embed a hard-to-remove RFID (radio frequency identification) tag or other unique identifier for the factory at which each piece of clothing was produced.
- Create a mobile app that lets the customer scan the bar code or Google the factory ID and see real-time worker feedback about conditions. Services such as LaborVoices and Labor Link already gather such feedback for retailers. Why not share it with consumers?
- Create a “fair trade” certification process factories can voluntarily join, adding a fair-trade logo to their products if they choose. Vendors that want to go premium (and charge even more for their products) could set up Webcams in their factories showing consumers how well they’re treating their workers.
- The customer decides how much to spend based on a reasonable level of information about the conditions under which the product was produced.
One small clothing company, Indigenous Designs, is already doing this on a small scale with QR codes. Next, we need a large retailer, or clothing manufacturer, with the guts to do it on a large enough scale to make this a competitive necessity.
Not There Yet
This system wouldn’t, of course, track suppliers further down the production line, like the farms that supply raw cotton, the mills that process it or those who make subassemblies (like shirt fronts and backs) for the factories.
Then there’s the low-end of the consumer market, where customers may not want or be able to pay a premium for “ethical” products. And, yes, everyone from factory owner to global retailer to disgruntled factory workers will try to game the system. But the same social media sites that track complaints can also help uncover attempts to trick the system, just like with product reviews on the Web.
The more workers, factories and retailers participate, the more likely it is that most factories will, over time, get the reputations they deserve and most consumers will vote with their wallets. Best of all, this makes good working conditions an area where factories and retailers want to excel. (Free-market advocates may now applaud.)
All we need now are some smart, connected people in the technology, consulting, social media and retail industries to step up and get it done. Volunteers?
Please feel free to pass this on to any clients or partners you think could help, and to claim it’s your idea.
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