WHEN nearly 1,200 workers died in a tragic factory collapse outside Dhaka last year, dozens of global brands and retailers faced intense public pressure to improve safety in their supplier factories. More than 200 of these global companies have agreed to join one of two collective initiatives to improve factory safety, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
Having just marked their one year anniversaries, both initiatives face significant challenges in fully addressing risks to workers in Bangladesh. But they have led to a significant collection of factory data that has the potential to fundamentally change the discussion about factory safety in Bangladesh and the broader supply chain.
Each month for the last year, the Accord and the Alliance have published lists of factories that supply Accord and Alliance brands and retailers. The government of Bangladesh has launched its own factory database, and the two Bangladesh trade associations have updated their websites and factory registries.
All of these are encouraging developments. Knowing how the apparel supply chain really operates is the first step toward fixing it. And while this information on its own will not make factories safer, more transparency is a necessary predicate to developing the kind of comprehensive action plan that is urgently needed in Bangladesh.
Last April, the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights published a detailed study of the garment industry in Bangladesh entitled “Business as Usual is not an Option.” Among other findings, it revealed that brands, retailers, and their primary suppliers are reliant on a web of subcontracting factories to produce the enormous quantities of very cheap clothing that have made Bangladesh a key sourcing destination.
Over the last six months, we have been closely tracking the emerging stream of factory data from Bangladesh, which is beginning to provide a window into how global supply chains really operate. For example, Accord and Alliance brands and retailers have turned over about a quarter of their supplier factories in the last year. By making more data about its garment sector available, Bangladesh is now ahead of competitors like Cambodia, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka in terms of transparency.
But there are serious limits on the usefulness of the data because of the way it is being shared. The data could tell us so much more if it were posted in accordance with a few best practices for open data:
1. Make the data accessible. Existing databases and factory lists post data in a variety of formats that are not user-friendly. The Accord and the Alliance post data in lengthy PDF files, while the government and trade associations maintain databases that don't allow analysis of large groups of factory data. Data should be easily accessible in standard, structured formats to allow for “bulk access” and use. This means downloadable Excel or Comma Separated Value files, not PDF.
2. Standardize the way factories are identified. Identifying the same factory across databases is made incredibly difficult by inconsistencies in the way factories are listed. There are slight variances in the spellings of factory names and addresses, and there is no consistent convention to identify the same factory in different databases. The government and the two apparel trade associations assign unique codes to each factory in their databases. The Alliance and Accord also should adopt the use of unique factory identifiers, harmonized with the trade associations, the government, and each other. Additionally, all databases should use standard spellings for factory names, districts, and production zones.
3. Post historical data. None of the existing databases – those hosted by the government, the trade associations, or the Accord and the Alliance – post historical data. Each posts only a list of current factories, which makes it impossible to assess trends over time. Until September, the Alliance posted each of its monthly reports online. This was a best practice that all of the initiatives should follow. Unfortunately, the Alliance has now taken down its historical reports, which represents a step backward for transparency in the supply chain.
Increased focus on factory safety in Bangladesh is moving the country toward much-needed transparency in the supply chain. The adoption of open data best practices is a critical next step toward assessing the full universe of factories and ensuring the long-term sustainability of Bangladesh's primary export industry. Access to better data now will help drive the kinds of changes that ultimately will make workers safer: greater government oversight of the full garment sector, infrastructure and industrial development, synchronization among factory safety initiatives, and better supply chain management.
The writers are the co-director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights and a masters' student at the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study, respectively.