Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster. A disaster in which more than 1,134 people died and another 2,500 were injured. The 4th largest industrial disaster globally, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, mostly affected female garment workers producing garments for fast fashion brands in the west.
While Rana Plaza represents an exceptional event, the factors that made it possible are all too common in the garment industry. Wages are artificially low, workers have no bargaining power to demand a living wage or improved health and safety. Meanwhile the lace of transparency in supply chains mean such conditions remain largely hidden from consumers and campaigners.
There have been improvements in the last 10 years. Notably in Bangladesh the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry is the culmination of series of agreements developed over the last 10 years between brands, retailers and global trade unions to improve fire and structural safety of workplaces and introduce a safety complaints systems in Bangladesh. This has provided a model for a similar agreement being be developed within the garment industry in Pakistan, with studies being undertaken to consider how this approach can be extended further in other garment producing countries. While this is undoubtedly a good step for those in the countries involved, this country by country approach also raises some questions.
The most obvious is that brands can sign up to accords in one country, while business continues unaffected in others.
One such signatory is easy to doubt given that it was identified during the covid pandemic for factories implicated in local covid hotspots. Whistleblowers exposed lax health, safety and covid conditions alongside pay levels below the statutory minimum wage. All this at the same time as booming online sales growth meant large bonuses for senior management.
This example follows an all too common pattern throughout the industry; poor pay, poor working conditions, huge profits and bonuses for wealthy owners and shareholders. That it happened in the UK where there is a supposedly robust statutory framework, perhaps begs the question of just how easy it is for companies to operate in such a manner, and how much more easily they fall into his model of production when there is little regulation.
However, thus far I have spoken about suppliers, but what about us as consumers? What’s driving this model?
It’s nothing less than crazy to think that, should I wish to, I can now buy clothes for less than I would have paid when I was a student 30 years ago. Crazy but true.
Most of the time we think about inflation increasing costs, but with clothes, fast fashion production models mean we now pay less, in real terms, than we did 30 years ago.
However, the real reality here is that while we’re not paying more for our clothes, somebody is, and that’s generally the person who made them. Paying with their low wages, poor working conditions and in the most tragic cases, their lives.
I use words like ‘we’ and ‘our’, not because this is about ‘us’ as individuals, it is systemic. We can take steps to change our own personal behaviour but the system remains, and while it remains we can never really escape the real human costs and we also all live with the environmental costs.
Meeting the demand for cheap clothing impacts across the entire supply chain. From the use of oil, water and dyes to weave and print the fabrics to the sewing of the garments, and often shortly thereafter the disposal of what has become effectively throw away garments, people and planet and climate are all impacted. Greenpeace have a great overview showing the social and environmental impacts of the fashion industry and how unnecessary overproduction of clothing is a leading cause of climate change and plastic pollution.
While I have raised questions about the International accord and some of its signatories above, I would still encourage you to pressurise brands to sign both the International accord for Bangladesh and the 2023 Pakistan accord. These are the only existing binding agreements in this area of production and pressuring brands to sign shows that as consumers we’re looking at their supply chains and working practices and expecting more. While many have signed there are still big players how haven’t. Think Levis, The North Face, Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, Amazon, Walmart, Gap, Ikea, Ralph Lauren, and many more.
They may not be signing up but you can also sign the Fashion Revolution Manifesto:
If you follow the link above, you can read more about this, how these points can be recognised and what you can do to play a part. Fashion Revolution as a global network with actions that can be taken in a range of jurisdictions.
If, like me, textiles are of interest you can also ask #WhoMadeMyFabric? The report linked here explore textile supply chains.
Or, if you want to check out individual brands, the Fashion Transparency Index may hold the answer.
If you want to find out more and have regular reminders on social media that are packed with information from an industry insider, you can follow the Clotheshorse Podcast and listen through your preferred podcast provider.
For the knitters among us, I love the images being posted by Laines Paysannes on Facebook highlighting a different approach and where many of our clothes begin:
We all need clothes, but we don’t need as much as is currently being made, and we don’t need it to cost the lives of others and our planet.
Until next time, I hope you have fun making your own fabric and clothing. I also hope you have chance to view some of the resources linked in this post and have the opportunity to take action aimed at systemic change.
All the very best,