"It seemed very challenging to agree to," she said. "We don't own these factories and we're not the exclusive brands. It would be a different picture if we owned the factories."
Since then, Gap has hired its own chief fire inspector to oversee factories that produce Gap brands in Bangladesh. In addition to about $1 million spent on safety measures in Bangladesh in the last two years, Gap has committed to another $2 million to ensure that people laid off because of fire safety repairs are still paid. The San Francisco-based company has pledged to put factories in touch with financial institutions that can give them up to $20 million in capital for safety improvements. The chain has also said it will share anything it learns about safety issues in factories with the Bangladeshi and U.S. governments.
Silten acknowledged that such measures are not exhaustive.
"But we believe that in order to change (the system)," she said, "we need others to change."
Fashion chain H&M, which places the most apparel orders in Bangladesh, also did not sign on to the legally binding proposal because it believes factories and local government in Bangladesh should be taking on the responsibility, according to Pierre Börjesson, manager of sustainability and social issues, who attended the Dhaka meeting.
"We have the responsibility in Bangladesh to improve the situation, but this is through educating suppliers," he said.
H&M, which works with more than 200 factories in Bangladesh, is one of about 20 retailers and brands that have banded together to develop training films for suppliers. H&M has also started to do electrical assessments at the factories it does business with, an expense shared by the factories. It is pushing for suppliers to establish workers' committees to negotiate better wages and other issues with factory management, Börjesson said.
Wal-Mart, which ranks second in the number of apparel orders it places in Bangladesh, has also taken new steps. This year Wal-Mart is requiring regular audits of factories, fire drills and mandated fire safety training for all levels of factory management. Spokesman Kevin Gardner said Wal-Mart's comments during the April 2011 meeting, which were jointly edited by Wal-Mart and Gap in the minutes obtained by the AP, were taken "out of context."
"Wal-Mart has been advocating for improved fire-safety with the Bangladeshi government, with industry groups and with suppliers," Gardner wrote in an email to the AP. "We firmly believe factory owners must meet our (supplier standards), and we recognize the cost of meeting those standards will be part of the cost of the goods we buy."
Auditors hired by Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., inspected the Tazreen factory in 2011, giving it an "orange" or high-risk rating. Months later, the third-party auditor did a second inspection, giving it another "orange" rating. And early this year the factory was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for the retail giant. The company said a supplier — who has since been fired — had moved Wal-Mart production there without its knowledge.
But Prakash Sethi, a professor of management at City University of New York, is skeptical that Wal-Mart has so little power or knowledge when it comes to safety conditions at factories.
"How long will it take Wal-Mart to identify a factory if they were making shirts or shorts that were uneven, or where the sewing was below acceptable quality? Less than two days," he said. "They would immediately figure out which factory, where it's being made and put a stop to it. Why is it that they can't do it about the workers?
Labor activists also doubt that the safety plans designed by retailers themselves will do the job.
"Voluntary codes of conduct are useless," said Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, who is best known for exposing the use of Honduran child labor to produce clothing for celebrity Kathie Lee Gifford's line in the mid-1990s. "The monitoring is completely phony."