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Should Workers Be Dying to Make Your T-Shirt for You?

05/29/2013 04:55 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2013

Am I wrong to be disgusted over the blatant irresponsibility of some of the largest retailers and apparel brands in the world as well as the governments, and factory owners in the countries sought for the lowest possible manufacturing costs? Not to mention their collective and total disregard of the horrific working conditions; "slave labor" compensation; indeed the very lives of those making the world's precious apparel? I will answer for you. Not only am I right, we should all be disgusted.

But let me be clear. I am singling out those brands and retailers who have far too long "kicked the can down the road," avoiding direct responsibility for dealing with a "slave-like" process, albeit a very complicated one. Why am I singling them out, and detaching them from the fraudulent and corrupt governments and businesses they must deal with? Because at the end of the day, it is their supply chain. They control it. They own it. And, they are the only entity in the whole rotten process that has the clout to correct it.

Some are doing it right, and you know who you are. But many have not done anything about it, or at best have deferred direct responsibility, and you know who you are.

So, for those of you who have "passed the buck," "turned a blind eye," and generally stuffed it down on your priority list, I am "in your face" about your supply chain. And yes, it is your supply chain!

At the beginning of your supply chain there are people literally dying to make your stuff for you, for as little compensation as their greedy factory bosses can get away with. Why? Just so they can subsist at some groveling level, so that you, at the other end of your supply chain, can make a fortune and continue to subsist in "opulence" (certainly a lifestyle beyond what that hapless worker can even imagine). And let's not forget how attached at the hip you are to your compulsively addicted, and excessively consumptive consumer, who just wants more, more, and more for me, me, me -- and oh yes, cheaper, cheaper, and cheaper.

And I don't have to tell you that in order to continue to give more and cheaper to that consumer, while still maintaining your wonderful lifestyle -- and, oh yes, giving Wall Street what it demands -- somebody has to take the fall and give more for less somewhere in your supply chain. And where might that be? Just think about the now 1100 dead, plus the injured, disabled, and their extended families now living in horror in Bangladesh. And then think about what the greedy, fraudulent, corrupt, criminal bosses and politicians do to do to keep up their lifestyles by promising to give you "more for less," regardless of what it takes to make that happen.

Disgusting? It's beyond disgusting. And, I declare it is your supply chain even though you may share those poor workers with other major brands and retailers.

And while I'm at it, I'm also sick of hearing about how we lift up these third-world economies by importing billions of dollars of stuff, which in turn provides jobs for their poverty-level populace, thus creating a virtuous cycle of growth. Growth for whom? Growth for the bosses and politicians I described above, riding on "the backs" of cheap labor. Indeed, in harsh reality, it's a vicious cycle of depression and death for those of least value to your supply chain - the workers.

IT'S YOUR SUPPLY CHAIN - ONLY YOU CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT

So, I really have no interest in reading or hearing about consortia, NGOs, and big gatherings of "Mr. Bigs" to figure out what to do about this horrific situation. We know where "designs by committee" end up; much less, committees that are made up, and largely led by, the very same people who have caused this disastrous situation in the first place -- and whose interests benefit from keeping this as status quo.

At the end of the day, it is your supply chain, period. So, do something about it on your own. Get "feet on the ground" where this horror is playing out, and do the right thing by forcing those at the beginning of your supply chain to do the right thing. And then keep your people on the ground to enforce it.
And if the bosses don't adhere to your demands, just plain fire them, as you would any other employee that doesn't work by the rules. YOU are the money train for the entire supply chain. Only YOU can make the right thing happen. If costs go up and you lose a few bucks on the bottom line, at least you may be saving a life at the very beginning of your supply chain.

So, do the right thing! Or, go live with yourself in a dark closet somewhere filled with clothes made by "slave labor."

Robin Lewis has over forty years of strategic operating and consulting experience in the retail and related consumer products industries. He has held executive positions at DuPont, VF Corporation, Women's Wear Daily (WWD), and Goldman Sachs, among others, and has consulted for dozens of retail, consumer products and other companies. He is co-author of The New Rules of Retail (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). In addition to his role as CEO and Editorial Director of The Robin Report, he is a professor at the Graduate School of Professional Studies at The Fashion Institute of Technology.