Walmart has staked the lion's share of its sustainability program on greening its supply chain. Instead of changing its own business practices — selling flimsy, landfill-bound products and building sprawling stores that can only be reached by car, for example — Walmart has said that it can make more headway on greenhouse gas emissions by pushing its suppliers around the world to reduce their energy and resource use.
But in the aftermath of the horrific fire that took the lives of 112 workers at the Tazreen garment factory in Bangladesh, it has become clear that Walmart has no credibility with regard to its supply chain. Its actions in the months leading up to the fire, and its obfuscations in the weeks since, demonstrate that Walmart cannot be trusted to put principles above greed, even when it explicitly states that it will do so, nor even to tell the truth about which factories are producing its goods.
In the wake of the Nov. 24 fire, Walmart at first said that it could not confirm that it had ever sourced apparel from the Tazreen factory, even though a document on the website of the factory's parent company showed that Walmart had audited the factory in May 2011 and had found "higher-risk violations."
Two days later, when The Nation published photos of Walmart-branded clothing in the charred ruins of the factory, Walmart admitted that the factory produced goods for its shelves, but said that it had removed the facility from its approved factory list at some point prior to the fire. Walmart claimed that a rogue supplier had continued filling orders there in violation of the retailer's ban.
If Walmart did indeed suspend the factory — it has not responded to journalists' questions about exactly when and why it did so — then it appears the company failed to inform its suppliers of the decision. According to The New York Times, the Tazreen factory was running orders for at least two Walmart suppliers at the time of the fire and, as recently as mid-September, five Walmart suppliers were using the factory.
Over the last few years, even as Walmart has been touting its efforts to cut waste and improve energy efficiency at Chinese factories, it has also been rapidly shifting apparel production to Bangladesh. Since 2006, Bangladesh has grown from the sixth largest apparel exporter in the world to the second, after China. What's driving this shift? Wages and production costs in China are rising, while Bangladesh remains dirt cheap. Its mostly female garment workers earn as little as $37 a month and, with the country's lax environmental and safety standards, overhead costs are remarkably low.
Most Bangladeshi garment factories lack even rudimentary fire safety features. When workers on the upper floors of the Tazreen factory tried to flee, they found locked exits, blocked stairwells, and limited fire-fighting equipment. They are not the first to die trapped inside a blazing factory. More than 600 of the country's garment workers have perished in fires since 2005, according to the International Labor Rights Forum.