1138 people losing their life in one factory in Bangladesh was the tip of the horrific iceberg that is the supply-chain of fast-fashion. The clothes we buy have gone on a long journey before they hit store shelves, passing through the hands of cotton farmers, spinners, weavers, dyers, and sewers.
There were five garment factories in the 8 stories commercial building called Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. The building also contained apartments, banks and several shops. As soon as cracks were reported in the structure of building all the shops and banks closed immediately. However, the following day the factory owners ignored warnings and ordered their employees to report to work. The building collapsed during the morning rush hour. These factories manufactured clothing for 29 big global brands such as Mango, Gap, Primark, Walmart and Carrefour – to name a few. The victims were mostly young women.
With approximately 5000 garment factories in Bangladesh employing over 4 million people, the Ready-Made Garments industry (RMG) drives the export market and is one of the largest job creation industries in the country. Competition amongst developing countries to attract foreign direct investment for such labour intensive industries is high. As the World Bank Country Director, India Onno Ruhl explains: “Apparel manufacturing not only has a huge potential for creating jobs, particularly for the poor but also has a unique ability to attract female workers. Employed women are more likely to create positive social impacts as they tend to spend their income on the health and education of children. […]Rising costs of apparel manufacturing in China provides a window of opportunity for India to focus on apparel in productively employing its huge working-age population.”
The fashion industry alone accounts for 2% of global GDP and is one of the most environmentally damaging industries in the world. About 75 million people work directly in the fashion and textiles industry, and about 80% of them are women. Yet the Rana Plaza disaster reminds us to look beyond numbers and quantitative measures of growth and development. We are forced to ask ourselves about the quality of employment created by the fashion industry. The EU, USA and Japan form three-quarters of the demand in the global apparel industry. The apparel industry is a buyer-driven supply-chain. The big fashion houses at the top of the supply-chain have the most to gain and set the rules of the game.
Less than a month after the Rana Plaza tragedy, the Bangladesh Accord was signed. It is a five-year independent, legally binding agreement between global brands and retailers and trade unions designed to build a safe and healthy Bangladeshi Ready Made Garment (RMG) Industry. And trade unions are given a strong and resourced mandate to ensure people work in a safe environment. Although the accord is a positive step towards securing safer work conditions for garment workers, thought of 1138 victims dying because of insatiable consumerism are haunting. Many of those who’s livelihood is dependent on working in a garment factory or picking the raw material needed to make these garments are subject to exploitation; verbal and physical abuse, working in unsafe conditions, with very little pay. The Rana Plaza disaster is a testament to these realities.
Leaders in the fashion industry responded with demands for more transparency in the supply-chain. Carry Somers founder and director of the hat brand Pachacuti (the first company to be certified under the World Fair Trade Organisation sustainable fairtrade management system back in 1992) lead this movement by starting Fashion Revolution. Fashion Revolution is a global organisation of designers, academics, writers, business leaders, policymakers, brands, retailers, marketers, producers, makers, workers and fashion lovers (like me) who work together towards radically changing the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed. Our aim is to ensure our clothing is made in a safe, clean and fair way.
As many leading academics in the field of sustainable fashion agree, collaborating across the whole value chain — from farmer to consumer — is the only way to transform the industry. This is why the ‘who made my clothes’ question is still hugely important. A Fashion Revolution is well and truly on it’s way up. The international campaign asking the simple question to brands has ignited a global conversation about supply chain transparency and started to inspire people to think differently about what they wear. We all have purchasing power. Our questions, our voices, and our shopping habits can have the power to help change the industry for the better.
As a society, we purchase 400% more clothing today than we did just 20 years ago. Every time we buy something that costs less than we think it should, we are implicit in the impacts of that transaction. The impact of driving the price of apparel down more and more poses a real threat to those at the bottom of the supply chain. And those at the bottom have the right – like you and me – to work in a safe environment. Without transparency and accountability, how are we to know that our purchase of a simple white t-shirt isn’t supporting modern day slavery in Uzbekistan? Or sewn by a young woman who is risking her life to earn an often below minimum wage salary?
We need to break our addiction to the need for speed and volume. We need to realise the true cost of our cheap bargains.
As Susan Freinkel points out in her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story:
If you can’t reuse or repair an item, do you ever really own it? Do you ever really own it? Do you ever develop the sense of pride and proprietorship that comes from maintaining an object in fine working order?
We invest something of ourselves in our material world, which in turn reflects who we are. In the era of disposability that plastic has helped us foster, we have increasingly invested ourselves in objects that have no real meaning in our
Ultimately, we need to buy less, buy better and keep asking questions about the realities behind what we’re purchasing. We need to love the clothes we already own more and work harder to make them last.
Be curious. Join in by showing your clothing label and asking the brand #WhoMadeMyClothes?