Liability? Responsibility? No, Sustainability.

I’ve been looking for a transcript of the remarks Johan Lubbe made yesterday, on behalf of the National Retail Federation — a trade association representing about 9000 American retailers and the chief and most vocal proponent of an “alternative” to the legally-binding global pact to ensure the safety of clothing factories in Bangladesh. The global pact has won pretty widespread support in Europe, but so far there are only two American signatories. The Americans won’t sign up because, they say, the global pact would expose them to litigation, or what one spokesperson for The Gap called “unlimited litigation,” should something go wrong at one of the factories they use.

Yesterday they brought out Lubbe. Here is how today’s AP report summarizes his remarks:

On Friday, the retail trade group made available for the media an international labor lawyer who rebuked the global pact and said that it is too vague for retailers to sign. At the heart of the criticism: the contract would expose retailers to legal liability for the failure of factories to comply with the set standards even though merchants don’t own the facilities.

In rejecting the global pact, Lubbe and the NRF are trying to limit the scope of legal liability to ownership — in this case, brick and mortar property ownership. I can’t tell if the claim here is that with outsourcing comes immunity, or that liability does not extend in any way down through the global manufacturing supply chain. For the moment, however, I’m less interested in all that than in knowing whether Lubbe or the NRF have made any kind of statement acknowledging their responsibility for conditions in the Bangladesh garment factories.

Responsibility is a word that applies, or should apply here, no matter how the debate about liability gets resolved. It is not a “vague” word of the sort that the NRF would reject. It’s a word that entails specific human rights commitments, which have been carefully enumerated and articulated in connection with the UN’s Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. It comes with ownership, but it also extends beyond ownership to business partnerships and relationships — all the way to Bangladesh.

I imagine there is anxiety that acknowledging responsibility might be misconstrued as admitting liability. The word and the idea of responsibility are certainly nowhere to be found in the statement the National Retail Federation issued on Wednesday. Instead, the NRF focused on how applying “a legal standard” would limit the ability of retailers and brands “to respond” to an “ever-changing environment.”

Given the global nature of the apparel and retail industry, applying a legal standard is a very complex proposition. The Safer Factories Initiative understands that flexibility is required to address a broad array of worker safety issues and enables brands and retailers to respond swiftly and effectively to an ever-changing environment.

Let’s forgive the sloppy confusion (“flexibility is required to…enables”?) of the second sentence, and hope that in future the NRF hires a PR firm with grammarians in its employ. Just have a look at the language they’re floating here. These are such well-worn business tropes that we barely notice them: complexity, flexibility, responding swiftly to an ever-changing environment. Here, the big, giant brand, the multinational with suppliers and partners all around the world, is both powerful agent and vulnerable patient: capable of responding, at least if not bound or restricted by law, but subject to forces far beyond its control.

Sidestepping obligations and commitments, the NRF statement opts for “flexibility” and (as the statement continues) “sustainability,” an already-overused and much-abused word that appears in nearly every statement the Federation makes. Talk about vague. The NRF want “sustainable solutions” to make the Bangladesh garment industry “a sustainable manufacturer.” They offer a “sustainable action plan” now and “will continue to pursue a sustainable industry-wide solution,” and so on. The word and its variants appear 9 times in the course of a single statement.

You get the idea. As companies respond to rapidly changing conditions — or flee from one disaster to the next — they need flexibility to fashion a sustainable way forward. Otherwise they might be engulfed by their own blunders, or held responsible or liable for their part in the whole mess before they can run to the next country.

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