THE BLOG
06/03/2013 02:46 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2013

Power of Social Media: New Wave of Consumer Activism Rising Out of Rana Plaza Tragedy

To say social media has changed the communications dynamic between corporations and consumers would be an understatement. Far gone are the days of one-way communications where businesses push out messages to hoards of consumers who accept their information unquestioningly. Today's communications between customers and companies - about reviews or complaints, customer service praises or critiques, and assessments of a company's social or environmental records - are often animated, emotional, and highly visible.

Just ask Applebee's. Social media has delivered an unprecedented influence to consumers on the reputations and decision-making of even the biggest American companies.

Recent events have demonstrated that under enough of a spotlight on dubious practices, businesses will react. In April 2013, in response to a petition signed by more than 100,000 consumers, the world's biggest chocolate maker, Mondelez International, announced it would reexamine worker policies throughout its supply chain to ensure women get paid equally to men.

Mondelez International is a good template for consumer activism in the aftermath of the horrific Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh. The April 24 building collapse, the deadliest ever garment factory disaster, cost 1,129 low-wage workers their lives. Despite warnings from police and local law enforcement that the building was unsafe, workers were forced inside under the threat of losing three days pay for every day they missed. Garment workers in Bangladesh make approximately $38 a month, making them the lowest-paid garment employees in the world. Could these people, already struggling to earn enough money to feed and clothe their families, really forfeit three days' pay? Unfortunately, the horrific events of April 24 give us the answer to that question.

American retailers make billions of dollars in profits from clothing made in Bangladesh, the second largest garment exporter in the world. These companies must do a better job of ensuring the workers throughout their supply chain are in factories that meet basic safety standards. Cheap clothing cannot cost human life. In response to the tragedy in Bangladesh, American retailers did very little to address safety improvements. While a host of European retailers signed on to a Fire and Building Safety accord mandating companies conduct independent safety inspections and pay up to $500,000 per year towards improvements, shamefully, American retailers did not follow their lead. PVH Corporation and Abercrombie & Fitch were the lone US retailers to sign. Major retailers such as Walmart, Gap, JC Penney, Sears, and others initially declined.

But the tide may be turning. Since the Bangladeshi disaster, American consumers have shown increased interest in the dire conditions of workers abroad making our cheap t-shirts and blouses. Petitions have been circulated, pledges drafted. Among those is our own "10 cents" Facebook campaign, aimed to raise awareness of the fact that improving factory safety in Bangladesh would cost only pennies per garment - and could happen over a period as short as five years.

American retailers have demonstrated their unwillingness to absorb that cost, and they assume consumers wouldn't be willing to spend an extra dime for workers' lives. But due to the wave of consumer outcry building around campaigns like our 10 cents pledge or the online petition urging H&M to sign a safety accord that received more than 900,000 signatures, corporate change may be just around the corner. Just last week, reports surfaced that Gap and Walmart are working on an action plan for Bangladesh's garment industry.

Activists will wait with baited breath, while continuing to raise awareness among American consumers.

For decades, we have seen consumer-Davids trying to stand up against corporate-Goliaths, across every corner of the marketplace, from the auto industry to dangerous products for children to food safety violations that were literally making us sick. Advocates haven't always had the kind of access to consumer outrage and passion that we do now, and it's an amazing thing. Social media is a game-changer for raising awareness and fueling activism about odious corporate behavior. We now have the ability to harness passions and propel them toward real, positive change.

It's up to us to let retailers know we care about protecting the workers who make our clothes. Saving pennies on clothing is not worth the loss of human life. More than 100 years ago, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in America shed new light on the horrors of factory working conditions. Industrial and labor leaders came together to develop fire codes and structural safety plans and to ensure improved factory safety and a higher quality of life for workers. Along with these safety reforms came better wages and the right to collectively bargain for a safer, healthier work environment. A horrible disaster was needed to bring attention to those turn-of-the-century working conditions. Hopefully, out of the tragedy and rubble of the Rana Plaza building collapse, emerges a new era of attention to safer working environments abroad.

This change will not happen, however, without pressure from American consumers. Major retailers do not want to sign binding safety agreements, and they do not want to invest the necessary money to ensure basic safety standards in factories. The time is now for consumers to harness their collective power and stand up to a corporate mentality of "profits before people." Retailers, we see the blood on your hands, and something must be done about it.