Conflicts of Responsibility in the Globalized Textile Supply Chain. Lessons of a Tragedy.

Friday, June 24, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
639 Evans (Evans Hall)
Pauline Barraud de Lagerie, Sciences-po / CNRS; Université Paris Dauphine, Paris, France
Eight years before the Rana Plaza collapse (24 April 2013), which killed over 1100 people and received huge international media coverage, a somewhat similar tragedy drew my attention: the collapse of the Spectrum Sweater Industries Ltd. factory (10 April 2005), which was responsible for the death of 64 people and led to some international mobilization.

Here, I consider the Spectrum affair to be one of the many instances where putting the firms’ social responsibility into actual practice was debated in situ. On the sidelines of the controversies that rocked the academic universe, and of the decisions arrived at by the groups in charge of “defining” CSR, the Spectrum tragedy led to mentioning and contesting the extra-legal responsibility of the contracting firms with regard to their suppliers’ personnel. It appears that, from the time anti-sweatshop activists started to express a “demand for virtue”, companies have responded with corporate social policies. But the article sheds light on the dialectical relationship between CSR and political consumerism, by using the Spectrum tragedy as a telling illustration of how activists can revive criticism against companies that claim to be socially responsible. The paper thus analyses the dispute concerning the “social responsibility” of Western firms with regard to the working conditions prevailing at their Southern suppliers’ factories.

The paper is based on a four-part field-program. First of all, to review the affair, I resorted to both the international and Bangladeshi English-language press (160 dispaches and articles). Second, to study the activist action of the Clean clothes campaign, I collected the documents concerning the communications emanating from their main office and from the Belgian branch; I also took advantage of fieldwork carried out on the French branch between August and December 2005, to follow up in real time how the campaign was being built up and interview its leaders. Third, to grasp the position of the client-firms, I interviewed the persons in charge of “social compliance” at three of the big names implicated in the affair. Lastly, in Bangladesh in 2007, I was able to access the first expert reports and meet with several people: the woman who represented a workers’ trade union, the president of the association Friendship, the persons in charge of two employers’ unions in the textile sector, and the owner of the collapsed factory.

As a theoretical framework, the paper basically follows one main principle: reject any normative approach and describe Corporate Social Responsibility as defined by the actors themselves. In order to embrace the broadest range of facts pertaining to responsibility, the paper relies on Durkheim’s definition as reworded by Paul Fauconnet: “responsibility is the characteristic of those who must, [...] by virtue of a rule, be chosen as the passive subjects of a sanction”. From that point of view, all “judgments of responsibility” are identified with the sanction applied, be it legal or moral, positive or negative, retributive or restitutive, trivial or momentous. Besides, any judgment concerning responsibility is the result of applying a “rule of responsibility”, whether such a rule explicitly exists black on white or is simply revealed by behavior, justifying the legitimate choice of the person who will endure the sanction – since committing a fault is but “one situation among others generating responsibility”.

That said, contrary to the Durkheimian approach and the notion of “collective consciousness”, one should consider that disputes may arise over rules of responsibility. Consequently, the paper embraces a more constructivist and interactionist way of seeing judgements of responsibility. In the “labeling theory” (Becker, 1963), society is said to consist of a plurality of understandings of what is best; “moral entrepreneurs” are no more than people who draw attention to issues or even “create” them. Moral entrepreneurs create rules and/or apply sanctions to those who don’t behave according to the rule. In the following case, I will show that an organization of political consumerism endorsed the role of “moral entrepreneur” by shedding light on the responsibility of client-firms towards their supplier employees, and by organizing the mobilization of citizen-consumers to pressurize the firms. In line with the “naming, blaming, claiming” process presented by Felstiner et al. (1980-1981), we will attempt to note the various transformations that led from a mishap to the demand for reparations.

The paper is organized as follows. The first section shows how, once the dramatic event had occurred, searching for the guilty parties was not restricted to an action decided on by the victims and their trade-union representatives against the bosses and local public officials – as is mostly the case in industrial accidents – but was also supported by activists who, thousands of miles away, decided to denounce the business partners of the destroyed factory. The paper sheds light on the role played by the Clean Clothes Campaign to structure the consumer protest and define what a corporate policy for social responsibility should be. The second section looks into the conflicts of responsibility generated by the activist accusations. The paper illustrates how the firms rejected any judgment of responsibility, and more generally sought to ward off the creation of a new rule of responsibility. The core of the controversy was the question of social compliance monitoring systems. Thus it appears that, as soon as they have implemented a process of social compliance monitoring, the client firms consider they should not be held responsible in case of unforeseeable tragedy. Meanwhile the activists use tragedies like the Spectrum collapse as proof that social monitoring is not effective. Finally, the paper demonstrates that the decision of Western firms to assist the victims did not lead to a consensus around corporate social responsibility at all. In fact, the money given by the firms turned out to be a kind of “boundary object” (Star and Griesemer, 1989): the firms considered it as a gift, an act of pure generosity, while the activists considered it as the settling of a debt that the Western firms supplied by the Bangladeshi factory had contracted out of respect for the victims of the catastrophe.