A Practical Case in Bangladesh: The Boycott Scenario
Having assessed the RMG industry and its strong economic as well as societal significance in Bangladesh, the following will delve into a possible boycott scenario and its implications.
The success, or in other words, the achievement of change for the factory workers, of any type of boycott is, amongst other factors, primarily dependent on the commitment of a large enough group of persons (Delacote, 2009). Granted, one individual deciding to refuse to buy from one fast-fashion retailer will likely not drive the latter into bankruptcy. However, boycotts are not impossible and can, by all means, achieve at least some sort of outcome. One successful example was the shutdown of Ivanka Trump’s fashion line in 2018 after facing a broad boycott movement for over two years. As the customers refused to buy the clothes, big retailers decided to drop the brand, leaving Ivanka Trump no choice but to close her label (Hanbury, 2018). While seemingly successful, there are two main points to consider in this case. First, the boycott did not lead to any improvements for the garment workers in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Ethiopia. Instead, it led to Ivanka Trump simply closing her label and, herewith, reducing or even stopping the garment production. One could speculate that this, in turn, placed a potential risk on the garment workers' employment. Second, similar to many other successful boycotts, this one did not target large fast-fashion retailers. The fact that this successful boycott neither led to improved working conditions for the garment workers nor targeted a fast-fashion giant, but instead potentially risked the workers’ jobs, raises the question of whether a boycott could even have the potential to make a difference in terms of economic and societal issues related to the fast-fashion realm. After all, fast fashion’s primary strength is its immense size and importance in the global economy, as ranked by the McKinsey Global Fashion Index (2019).
In any case, the calls for boycotts of retailers such as Zara or H&M are not declining. Thus, taking a step further from Ivanka Trump’s fashion line and assuming a boycott against a fast-fashion giant was successful, what would happen to a country like Bangladesh?
First and foremost, if a large enough group of people stopped buying from a retailer, the overall demand for their garments would decline. A possible reaction to such dynamics could be observed during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Due to closed shops, declined consumer confidence and other factors, the demand, especially for fast-fashion, declined rapidly, which led to retailers cancelling their orders (Batha & Karim, 2020). Due to a lack of work and payment, many garment factories had to close, and thousands of workers went unpaid or at least underpaid (Batha & Karim, 2020). In Bangladesh alone, it was estimated that around US$ 500 million in wages were lost or withheld (Batha & Karim, 2020). As observed, facing a decline of the largest sector of the industry scarred Bangladesh’s entire economy, which was fuelled by the industry’s interconnectedness (Amit, 2020). This is especially detrimental given the country’s position as one of the least developed in the world, which depends even more than other countries on ongoing economic growth. For the concerned workers, the situation is equally harmful, given that the majority either lost their job entirely due to factory closings or continued working underpaid or even unpaid. One preeminent benefit of the mass employment of the RMG sector was that it guaranteed a usually steady flow of income which helped many, specifically women, gain more (financial) independence. Losing the only source of income revises this trend, which drives workers back or even deeper into poverty.
Certainly, boycotting one retailer may not result in the same crisis that Bangladesh’s economy is facing now. Notwithstandingly, the current effects of Covid-19 clearly illustrate that a subsiding decline of demand by customers of big fast-fashion retailers can – if large enough – have adverse effects on the workers in terms of loss of employment and the resulting lack of financial security, and on the economy at large due to (1) a decrease in purchasing power of the millions of factory workers and (2) the decrease of the RMG industry and the other connected sectors. Both lead to a decrease or at least a recession of economic growth. It is predominantly harmful to boycott a source of income many depend on, especially if those depending on it are already facing more severe circumstances due to their country’s state of development. Activist and former child worker in Bangladesh’s garment factories Kalpoona Akter (2013) summarised in her words: “a boycott is suicide for my country.”