Gap Can Build on Its Sikh Ad by Protecting Bangladeshi Workers

11 December 2013
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A fashion industry committed to diversity and inclusion stands on hollow ground if the products it markets are founded in economic exclusion.

This piece was originally published by U.S. News and World Report.

The liberal social media bloc was abuzz recently with praise for Gap, the ubiquitous apparel company known for its khaki, clean-cut sense of style and — most recently — an advertisement that featured a visibly Sikh male model, sporting a pagdi (turban) and a full beard. The ad achieved nationwide fame when the company produced a swift and emphatic response to racist graffiti scribbled over it in a New York subway station.

But another of Gap’s recent decisions — its refusal to join a groundbreaking accord to protect Bangladeshi garment workers — calls into question whether the corporate ethic of inclusion extends beyond marketing campaigns.

By selecting Waris Ahluwalia to model in its “Make Love” campaign, and immediately denouncing the act of an intolerant graffiti artist who changed that slogan to “Make Bombs,” Gap sent an important message of inclusion to 280,000 Sikhs living in the United States, telling them that Gap believes their faces and lived experiences are part of the American story.

Socially minded consumers might find it surprising then, that on another issue of justice and inclusion, Gap’s response has been anemic. After the death of nearly 1,200 apparel workers in the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza — a dilapidated building housing several garment factories on the outskirts of Dhaka — retailers around the world sought channels for improving working conditions in the country. A landmark agreement emerged, aimed at strengthening worker protections in Bangladesh’s massive apparel industry, but Gap has refused to sign on.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh goes beyond traditional corporate social responsibility. First of all, a broad coalition of corporations, trade unions and workers’ rights organizations negotiated jointly and endorse the agreement. Second, its signatories are legally obligated to fund independent inspection of facilities, plus structural repairs and renovations of existing factories. Over 100 international brands — including Gap competitors like Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and H&M — have already signed on.

The accord is about basic human rights. Bangladeshi workers possess the right to safe working conditions, the right to fair wages and the right to life.

It’s also about inclusion. Mirroring the globalization story in many countries, economic growth in Bangladesh has been rapid, but its rewards have not been shared broadly. Rather than creating an economic culture of shared prosperity, Bangladesh has engaged in a “race to the bottom” – maintaining substandard wages and working conditions in order to make production costs attractively, and artificially, low. The accord is a first step toward transforming those marginalized by globalization into its beneficiaries.

If it joined the accord, Gap would send another powerful message of inclusion to four million Bangladeshi garment workers: your economic opportunity, your ability to obtain a just job, and your right to share in the fruits of economic growth, matter to us. Further, it could demonstrate to its new Tweeting extollers that the company’s progressive attitudes inform its supply chain management, not only its advertising.

Arsalan Iftikhar, the social commentator and online personality who made the Gap ad famous, wrote last month: “I want to live in an America where a fashion model can be a handsome, bearded brown dude in a turban who is considered as beautiful as a busty blonde-haired white girl in see-through lingerie.”

That America does sound nice. But a fashion industry committed to diversity and inclusion stands on hollow ground if the products it markets are founded in economic exclusion. With the power of its brand and the size of its supply chain, Gap can and should do more to create just jobs in the apparel sector. Signing the accord is a necessary step.