April 24, 2018, marks the five-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh. With a death toll of 1,134 and around 2,500 people injured, the collapse of the five-story building, which housed factories supplying major retailers like Benetton, J.C. Penney and Walmart, is the deadliest garment factory accident in history.
The Rana Plaza accident sparked much discussion about corporate social responsibility in an age of global supply chains, as well as increased awareness and interest in sustainability and compliance.
This helped lead to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, two agreements that require Bangladesh’s factories to improve building safety and improve labor conditions within five years, which means that the agreements expire this summer.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Accord, backed by European companies including the parent company of Zara, will be extended for up to three more years, but the Alliance, backed by North American retailers like Gap and Walmart, will end this year. Progress, however, has been slow.
Because of this, Spend Matters was intrigued to learn about a project to create a digital factory map of Bangladesh, a joint effort from BRAC University, Sourcemap and the C&A Foundation. Officially called the Digital Ready-Made Factory Map of Bangladesh, the project is set to launch this summer.
A team of data collectors from BRAC University and Sourcemap are currently visiting every garment factory in Bangladesh and gathering GPS-linked data points on workers, factory facilities, certifications, types of products manufactured at the factory, and companies that source from the factory.
“There’s a lot of legwork being done by the BRAC University team,” says Leonardo Bonanni, founder and CEO of Sourcemap. “They have upwards of 40 people scouring the country, bit by bit, on scooters, mapping factories, talking to locals, finding out where small production shops might be located, interviewing [factory managers], putting that information together and verifying it. And we just are very lucky to be the platform that helps them do it all more efficiently and then broadcast it to the public.”
The data collectors are meticulous about compliance, taking photos of certificates and facilities as verification of the information that will be included in the public database. Although the first public platform will be out this coming summer, the data collection process will continue for at least three years.
“The whole garment map is going to be publicly available,” Bonanni says, “And that’s as much for consumers who are curious to learn about how and where clothes are made as it is for civil society groups and NGOs that advocate on behalf of workers and buyers who are looking for new places to do business.”
As for what the actual map will look like, Bonanni likens it to a “Google Map” for garment factories. But users will also be able to search by factory type and size, by number of male and female workers and by the brands that the factories supply.
“If you want to search for H&M suppliers in Dhaka of a certain size, that’s what this map will enable you to do,” Bonanni says.
It is rather fortuitous that the digital factory map launches around the same time that the Alliance is set to expire. Five years after the Rana Plaza factory collapse, the movement for better safety standards and labor conditions has moved into the hands of local advocacy groups.
The difficult question here is whether and to what extent the factory collapse has led to greater demand for transparency and sustainability. There have been mixed findings on whether consumers really care about ethical sourcing, but Bonanni believes that transparency is becoming more expected.
“Whether it’s driven by the brands or by the consumers, the demand for transparency has skyrocketed in the last year,” Bonanni says. “And we’ve seen that not just with the [garment factory mapping] project, but with a slew of other projects in the apparel, food and electronics sectors.” The Sourcemap software has also been used for mapping the palm oil supply chain, for instance.
“If a factory wants to gain international buyers, then it has to live up to a number of standards. And the most recent standard is transparency, so this map is a way for Bangladeshi apparel factories to be found by international buyers,” Bonanni says.
Bangladesh’s factory owners seem to be well aware of that, as they have been cooperating with the data collectors by preparing their documents and survey responses, realizing that the way they appear on the garment map can determinehow many buyers find them and contract with them.
Ultimately, Bonanni explains, this map is an effort to create a “Made in Bangladesh” label that consumers will associate with regulation and compliance. “Many of those criteria that are being collected here are about showing that the apparel factories are up to standard,” he says.