Doesn’t it baffle you that a basic human need has become a significant source of social and environmental harm? When dealing with necessities, we can’t imagine that there’s a dark world that sits behind it. It’s the same with food. Because we need it, we can’t imagine that we could be consuming anything that technically isn’t food (Well, we know that this is what’s happening). Well, it’s in these everyday, overlooked areas that the greatest damage can be done – like in fashion.
It is this damage that needs to be undone and to understand why here’s a short history lesson. Here we go!
Once upon a time, there was Rana Plaza
As we move past its 6th anniversary, here’s a little reminder.
On April 24th, 2013, the 8-story, Rana Plaza factory, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed. On the 23rd, the building’s shop and bank workers stayed home. Inspectors had warned them about cracks in the building. Unfortunately, the building’s garment workers did not have that luxury. On the morning of the 24th, the 3,639 people who worked in the Plaza refused to enter the building. But they could not stand up to their managers who threatened their jobs if they didn’t go to work. A few hours into that morning, over 1,100 people lost their lives as the Plaza came tumbling down. Many of the victims were young women, 18-20 years old, who worked 100 hours a week, with two days off a month. The catastrophe sparked international outrage. All while the 31 well-known brands tied to the factory remained silent. Questions flowed with many asking how we got to Rana Plaza.
So let’s explain
To understand what led to Rana Plaza, we need a basic understanding of the garment industry. For years, fashion has been seasonal. In the past, the most profitable brands came out with collections 2-4 times a year. Clothing makers took their time to produce quality items and were paid fairly. Recently, fast fashion brands have appeared on the scene producing over 50 seasons a year. This has turned the fashion industry into a tailspin. Fast fashion brands operate on the principle of margin. The idea is to sell trendy items fast then rinse, repeat, and do it again. They’re not focused on quality. Because items are cheap and of poor quality, it’s easy to justify buying something new whether you need it or not. “Fast fashion has engendered a race to the bottom, pushing companies to find ever-cheaper sources of labor,” according to a UNICEF report. To produce within this model (cheap and often), fast fashion brands need to keep costs low. Who doesn’t love that? Unfortunately, a significant cost in clothing manufacturing is labor. These brands produce in countries like Bangladesh to gain access to cheap labor. To break it down, a fast-fashion brand, will go to a factory in, let’s say, Bangladesh. They may need 20,000 of a particular style of shirt. The two parties negotiate a price, draft a contract and start production.
As the fast fashion brand becomes more powerful, manufacturers become less able to negotiate. If, for example, a manufacturer quotes a price that’s a bit too high and the fast fashion brand declines it, guess what? The fast fashion brand will go somewhere they can get the job done for the price they prefer. The fast fashion brands are dealing with managers. The managers accept the contract, take a slice of the pie and leave little to the garment workers. Now the garment workers who depend on this for their livelihoods are left peanuts. Now you can say, why don’t the garment workers leave and go somewhere else? The question is, where? The issue is an epidemic. Any kind of resistance is met with forceful and sometimes life-threatening retaliation. Accommodating garment workers is not a priority. This is because the garment industry significantly contributes to the developing country’s GDP.
It’s also important to note that many times, a manufacturer might accept a job that’s too large for them to handle. To get it done on time, they will subcontract parts of the job to another factory. Many fast-fashion brands will claim to produce in ‘approved’ factories. Yet they know that their contract will most likely be outsourced, given its size. At first, brands could make the case that they had no idea that this was happening. But today, ignorance is inexcusable. With a little research, you can tell if your contract is going to be outsourced. All you need is your timeline, the garment manufacturer’s capacity and you have the information you need.
So was justice served at Rana Plaza?
In a way. But you can decide.
The managers who accepted the job contracts: On July 18th, 2016, they were formally charged with murder. Sohel Rana, the owner of the Plaza, along with 37 Bangladeshi managers, bore the full burden of the tragedy.
The fast fashion brands who initiated these job contracts: Many of these brands that did business with Rana Plaza were aware of their poor labor conditions. If they didn’t know, they were willfully ignorant. Shortly after the tragedy, many brands pulled together to contribute to the $30 million Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund. This served as compensation to the survivors and the victim’s families.
What do you think? Was justice served?
So what now?
On one hand, the most significant result of Rana Plaza is the new focus on supply chain transparency. Transparency leads to accountability. Accountability leads to change. Over the past 5 years, it’s clear that the number of sustainable brands has increased. You can’t escape ‘sustainable’ or ‘ethical’ fashion. It’s everywhere. But there hasn’t been a decrease in revenues for fast-fashion brands.
Wouldn’t you expect greater change given the amount of information available? It seems our actions and the information available are not moving in the same direction. In fact, according to this fast company article, it appears to be getting worse.
Today, prices are so low that it’s no wonder we end up with tons of stuff in our closet that we’ve barely worn. It’s also why we send 15 million tons of textile waste to landfills every year. Friend. That’s insane. Every time we waste money buying clothes we don’t need we’re feeding the monster called fast fashion. And we’re funding an industry that has no regard for human life or the planet. And we’re also funding brands that profit from us going broke while making us believe we’re saving money.
But there’s good news! If you like fashion, if it’s your form of expression, your art form, you don’t have to give it up. You don’t have to skip out because you’ve become a conscious consumer. There are ways you can still enjoy fashion and we talk about them here.
There is a reason why there is so much noise about sustainability in the fashion industry. Not only is it one of the largest environmental pollutants, but it is also one of the largest culprits of unfair practices towards humans. And all for what? A cheap t-shirt?
It doesn’t have to stay this way.
We can change it. Where to start might seem overwhelming and that’s why Thread Life exists. We want to make shopping for sustainable fashion so easy, it becomes a fact of life. But to see if this is even possible, we’re conducting an investigation. We want to know: If we make shopping for sustainable fashion easy, will more people do it? What are you looking for? Start your sustainable fashion journey today. We want to help make it easy by becoming your free, sustainable fashion stylist. Put in your request and join the challenge. You could be part of a major shift in the fashion industry.
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Are there any other history tidbits others need to know about? Please let us know in the comments section.