Brands risk image in Bangladesh responses

Over the past decade, major players in the

Over the past decade, major players in the fashion industry have flocked to Bangladesh, where the minimum wage is about $38 a month. (Credit: Getty Images)

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Global clothing brands involved in Bangladesh's troubled garment industry have responded in starkly different ways to the building collapse that killed more than 600 people.

Some quickly acknowledged their links to the tragedy and promised compensation. Others denied they authorized work at factories in the building even when their labels were found in the rubble.

The first approach seems to deserve plaudits for honesty and compassion. The second seems calculated to minimize damage to a brand by maximizing distance from the disaster.

Communications professionals say both are public relations strategies and neither may be enough to protect companies from the stain of doing business in Bangladesh.

Such experts say that with several deadly disasters and fires in Bangladesh's $20-billion garment industry in the past six months, possibly the only way retailers and clothing brands can protect their reputations is to visibly and genuinely work to overhaul safety in Bangladesh's garment factories. A factory fire killed 112 workers in November, and a January blaze killed seven.

"Just public relations is not going to do it," said Caroline Sapriel, managing director of CS&A, a firm that specializes in reputation management in crisis situations.

Over the past decade, major players in the fashion industry have flocked to Bangladesh, where the minimum wage is about $38 a month.

Many clothing brands were quick to distance themselves from the five factories that were housed in Rana Plaza outside the city of Dhaka. The building, which was not designed for industrial use and had three illegally added levels, collapsed April 24.

Wal-Mart said there was no authorized production of its clothing lines at Rana Plaza.

Swedish retailer H&M, the single largest customer of Bangladeshi garment factories, said none of its clothes were produced there.

Only a few companies, including Britain's Primark and Canada's Loblaw Inc., which owns the Joe Fresh clothing line, have acknowledged production at Rana Plaza and promised compensation. Loblaw's CEO said there were 28 other brands and retailers using the five factories and urged them to end their "deafening silence."

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