Walmart, Linked to Deadly Factory Fire, Claims Ignorance

If you’re a PR rep attempting to perform damage control and the ever-popular regret-ridden mea culpa appears too risky, there’s always another option: total denial and claims of complete head-in-the-sand ignorance.

In the tragic and terrible case of the fire that killed 112 workers in a Bangladeshi clothing factory (which was recently revealed to have been making apparel for Walmart at the time of the blaze), the retail giant chose to go with the latter strategy.

Manager Delwar Hossain insists that he had no idea the workshop was making clothes for Walmart Stores Inc., that the factory was not authorized to do so, and that it had been sub-contracted by a supplier without Walmart’s knowledge or permission. Even if this were true, the recent revelation that the company decided not to pay for fire safety upgrades in its Bangledeshi factories strongly suggests culpability.

Claiming ignorance may actually work up to a point; perhaps the world’s largest retailer really didn’t know about the unauthorized subcontracting of cheaper labor via “shadowy supply chains” because this sort of thing frequently happens without the knowledge of end-buyers. But can Walmart really be so naive as to not understand how its demands for speedy mass production of clothes (and other goods) at rock bottom prices directly affect the supply chain?

Experts who specialize in supply-chain risk say that such demands for cheaper and cheaper products have led to a lack of control over where things are made, who makes them, and the safety of the conditions in which those employees work. Edward Hertzman, who runs Sourcing Journal, says:

“[Retailers and wholesalers] keep pushing everyone for lower and lower prices…You have one department of the company campaigning for fair wages etc., but then in the very next room the sourcing department is asking for 10-20 percent cheaper. How do you do that?

The disparity between those two goals and the disconnect between Walmart and the places where its products originate are disturbing no matter how you slice them. Even if the retailer’s utter denial of complicity are true, the company appears completely out of touch with the human component of its business.

Seems like a classic case of looking the other way, doesn’t it?