NEW YORK -- The deadly factory collapse in Bangladesh more than two weeks ago has led to calls for retailers to change the way they do business overseas. But a new poll and interviews with shoppers at stores whose garments were manufactured at the ruined factory show that pressure for change is unlikely to come from Americans, few of whom have heard much about the collapse and most of whom care more about prices than safe labor conditions.
Of the dozen Americans who spoke with The Huffington Post as they left Mango, Joe Fresh and Benetton stores in Manhattan, none knew of the Bangladesh factory collapse that killed more than 900 workers.
And those shoppers are not alone in having heard little or nothing about the collapse. According to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, only 17 percent of Americans said they had heard a lot about what happened. Another 48 percent said they had heard a little, and 35 percent have heard nothing at all.
Michelle Russo, from New York, perused the wares on Thursday at Joe Fresh’s flagship store on Manhattan’s glitzy 5th Avenue, completely oblivious to the tragic events that ended so many lives on the other side of the world.
“No, I haven’t heard about it!” she exclaimed when she found out, surprised and disturbed.
Still, news of the collapse wasn’t enough to spur Russo to immediately boycott brands like Joe Fresh. After all, most multinational apparel giants are involved with a staggering amount of suppliers and contractors. Benetton, for instance, has 700 manufacturers across the globe creating its various clothing lines.
“Sometimes these companies are so big and deal with so many people, it’s hard to judge a brand on their supplier,” Russo said. Companies need to take responsibility, and make the appropriate moves to make sure it doesn’t happen again, she said.
“If they ignored the problem and didn’t change the supplier, or how the supplier did things, then it would change my perception,” said Russo.
Many of the brands connected to the doomed Rana Plaza building have been lambasted by labor groups for their silence in the aftermath of the collapse. Galen Weston, executive chairman of Joe Fresh parent Loblaw, came out swinging after the disaster, condemning other brands involved for their “deafening silence.” Loblaw has enacted new rules aimed at preventing future tragedies, including thorough examinations of the structural integrity of buildings, and the deployment of in-house employees to keep tabs on factories abroad.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll finds little evidence that brands that don't make changes will feel the pressure from American consumers. According to the survey, Americans are far more likely to think about the price of items that they buy than about factory work conditions.
Fifty-five percent of respondents said prices are very important when they shop for clothing, while another 37 percent said prices are somewhat important. Only 5 percent said that they're not very important and 2 percent said they're not at all important.
By contrast, only 30 percent of respondents said that finding clothing manufactured under safe conditions is very important to them. Thirty percent said it is somewhat important, while 16 percent said it is not very important and 12 percent said it's not at all important.
And asked to choose which of the two is most important to their shopping decisions, priced dwarfed safe working conditions by a 43 percent to 12 percent margin. Another 37 percent said they were equally important.
If they did know that the clothing they buy was manufactured under safe conditions, 34 percent of respondents said they would be unwilling to pay more than usual. Twenty-three percent said they would be willing to pay up to 10 percent more, 18 percent said they were willing to pay up to 25 percent more, and 7 percent said they would be willing to pay up to 50 percent more. Nineteen percent weren't sure how much extra they would pay.
Even if they do care about buying clothing manufactured under safe conditions, though, few say that they always check labels to find out where their clothing comes from, even on the most basic level of finding out country where it was manufactured. Only 22 percent of respondents said that they always check clothing labels to find out where their clothing is manufactured, although another 37 percent said that they sometimes do. Twenty-four percent said they don't check labels very often, and 17 percent said they never do.
Daniel Schroefel, a tourist from Germany checking out the Manhattan Mall on Thursday, knew about the Rana Plaza collapse -- albeit without the details. He had received notifications on his phone from news agencies, but he didn’t know what brands were involved. Many of the biggest brands that have been connected to the factories in Rana Plaza -- Benetton, Primark and Mango -- are European.
Schroefel was stalwart in his defense of both workers and consumers, laying the blame firmly on the companies that benefit most from extremely low wage facilities with grueling working conditions.
“We should make them responsible for what happened there,” Schroefel said. “At the end of the day the companies are the engine.”
The poll was conducted May 2 and May 3 among 1,000 adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance. Additional crosstabs for the poll are available here.