On November 24th, 2012, a short-circuit led to a fire at the Tazreen Fashions Factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Amid the rising smoke and ringing fire alarm, supervisors prevented employees from leaving their sewing machines. When they tried to escape, they found padlocked doors, meant to shut them in during the work-day. Flammable fabric, stored illegally in the ground floor courtyard fuelled the fire as employees, working overtime creating clothes destined for big box American retailers, struggled to get out. 117 people, mostly young women, died that day, all preventable deaths if their employers and the retailers who hired them had followed regulations for safe working conditions.
Three weeks after the Tazreen fire, my business partner, Allie Wieser, and I were having our first sourcing discussions for Baby Hero, an organic baby clothing company we had recently incorporated. Our company’s philosophy centers on our Giving Model. For every item a customer buys, we donate a life-saving Neonatal Survival Kit to a mother and her infant in the developing world. With the unimaginably sad images of Tazreen and the many such preventable tragedies before it fresh in our minds, we focused on creating a supply chain that would be ethical from seed to shelf.
Starting at the Seed
We committed to using organic cotton, an environmentally friendly fabric which is best for the skin and health of the babies we are clothing. Regular cotton is one of the most pesticide-filled crops in the world, polluting the earth and bringing both those who cultivate it, and those who wear it, in contact with harsh chemicals. We also chose to only use fair-trade cotton, meaning the farmers who produce the cotton will receive a guaranteed price for their crop, generally 30% higher than conventional cotton. Sadly, many cotton farmers in India (the world’s second largest cotton exporter) have found they could not recoup input costs, leading to a rash of farmer suicides in despair. By choosing a fair-trade and organic crop, we are ensuring that farmers work chemical-free and are paid a living wage, enriching their families and communities.
Of utmost importance to us, as a company dedicated to helping women and children, we refuse to source our products from suppliers who exploit those very same women and their families. The greatest challenge we faced in building our company was finding a garment factory that met our high ethical and environmental standards while meeting our production goals. We took a list of hundreds of organic and fair trade certified factories and cold-called all of them to find ones making baby clothes under ethical labor practices. The exhaustive process paid off when we found a supplier in South India which not only manufactures high-quality, fair-trade, organic products in a fair-labor certified factory, it is itself a social enterprise, employing disadvantaged women and disabled people from the area as well as donating a portion of its profits to run its own local hospitals. To be sure the factory was as excellent as they claimed to be, we hired a professional to visit and report her findings. She said it was one of the best-run factories she has seen in her entire career. Not only were conditions safe, clean and pleasant, workers were paid higher overtime than industry standard and the employees she spoke to were very happy. A few weeks after we chose this manufacturer, the deadliest garment-factory accident in history killed over a thousand garment workers in Bangladesh when the 8-storey Rana Plaza Factory collapsed. It was clear to us that supporting the best kind of manufacturer was one of the most important decisions of our young company.
Do Customers Care?
While there is no doubt that it takes more effort to create an ethical supply chain, the rewards are tremendous. Our customers know that a purchase made for their loved baby is free from harmful chemicals, reducing the pollutants to our planet and positively impacting farmers, garment workers, and women and their infants in the developing world. We also think it makes good business sense – our ethical decisions were not expensive – they just took determination and research. If a small startup like ours can do it, we know larger, more established companies could potentially change the face of their respective industries by insisting on eco-friendly source materials, fair labor conditions and wages, and be rewarded for it by their customers.
Business has been the primary driver of innovation in our world, and there is no doubt it can have the same exceedingly positive impact tackling issues of poverty and society as well.
By Samar Shaheyar, Co-Founder of babyhe.ro