April 23rd of this year marked eight years since the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. The poorly built complex became a symbol of global inequality when 1,134 people died, and over 2,500 were injured while working tirelessly to feed the world’s giant appetite for fast fashion. The collapse at Rana Plaza only took 90 seconds but remains the deadliest unintended structural failure of modern times. Though by 2013, many of us were already somewhat aware of Asian sweatshops, the scale of this catastrophe stimulated new debates among consumers, fashion brands and retailers about the human costs of the fashion industry, and accelerated the popularity of ethical clothing.
It is disconcerting but not surprising that we depend on tragedy and death to trigger changes in irresponsible behaviour. The global sustainable fashion market size reached a value of nearly $6.35 billion in 2019, having increased at a compound annual growth rate of 8.7% since 2015. By 2023 the market is predicted to grow to $8.25 billion, $9.81 billion in 2025, and $15.17 billion in 2030, putting the growth rate at 9.1%. This rapid growth is mainly due to the systematic spreading of awareness regarding the use ofethical clothing and sustainable fashion. But as we ask ourselves, how can we live more sustainably, we must also ask what that means for Bangladesh and other nations like Vietnam, where ready-made-garment production is a primary export.
Business as Usual
Many big brands are attracted to countries where the cost of production is as low as possible. In practice, oftentimes this translates into subpar wages, little employment benefits, and unmonitored health and safety regulations. Growing awareness about the lack of transparency regarding these factors was a leading reason behind the rise ofethical clothing brands. Rana Plaza was the worst but certainly not the first disaster in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The Tazreen factory fire that killed 112 people happened a mere six months earlier.
Despite substandard working conditions, such places are oftentimes the only possible source of income for millions of impoverished people, most of whom are women. At least 85% of Bangladesh’s garment industry is staffed by women who work six days a week for twelve hours a day. The global fashion industry, worth $2.4 trillion, employs about 40-60 million workers in countries, like Cambodia or Pakistan, where corruption, violence and lack of accountability are rampant. The day before the collapse, attention was drawn to cracks in the building causing evacuation. The owner, Sohel Rana, declared the building safe to enter the following day and garment factory owners threatened to withhold the salaries of workers who refused to return to work. Approximately 3,000 people were inside when the building buckled under the weight of bodies and heavy machinery.
The disaster brought a lot of media attention to the fast fashion industry. People all over the world began to wonder, how could they let this happen? andhow can we live more sustainably? Brands connected to Rana Plaza were immediately established as the culprits of the crime and faced a PR nightmare. At least 29 brands were identified as doing business with one or more of the five factories located inside the Rana Plaza building, including Benetton, Bonmarché, Joe Fresh, Monsoon, Accessorize, Mango, El Corte Inglés, Primark and Walmart among others. Yet the problem was far bigger than those brands - it was systemic.
Rana Plaza Aftermath
After decades of cashing in on profits by hundreds of global companies that utilized Bangladeshi factories, some decided to jump the ship. Disney was the first brand to completely halt production in Bangladesh as a response to the tragedy. The United States withdrew its preferential tariff agreement with the country. Others in the industry vowed to do better. Within a month 222 companies signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement meant to ensure safe workplaces and conditions.
During the first five years since the disaster, the Accord inspected over two thousand factories and composed a detailed plan to repair over 150 thousand structural and safety concerns. It would seem that some things have improved, but others not nearly enough. Garment workers in Bangladesh staged protests as recently as 2019, over an insufficient pay raise. Meanwhile, factory owners claim that operating costs are too high for pay raises because international brands seem largely uninterested in sharing the increasing costs and paying more for the clothes that they buy.
In the past decade, Bangladesh has become the world’s second-largest garment supplier, after China, churning out billions of pieces of clothing each year. Ready-made-garment exports from Bangladesh doubled, from $14.6 billion in 2011 to $33.1 billion in 2019 and the industry increased its share of global garment exports from 4.7 to 6.7 percent. While buying ethical clothing is one solution to factory safety and value-chain responsibility concerns, financially speaking it is not yet an option for all consumers. It also fails to take into account the possible economic repercussions for countries like Bangladesh, where ready-made-garments makeup over 80% of the total export earnings and nearly 15% of the GDP.
Instead of Abandoning Ship, Repair It
In recent years, several bigger retailers attempted to improve the conditions in their supplier factories. But the change has been slow, since the factories are almost always owned by third parties. Several years ago, Patagonia, which is accredited by Fairtrade, discovered numerous cases of human trafficking in the textile mills where the raw materials for their garments come from. Even for massive players who try to do the right thing, it is often too complex to intervene directly in fashion supply chains. This, however, hasn’t stopped many brands from greenwashing and branding lines or their entire labels as sustainable or progressive. The idea of shopping our way to social change is great news for companies and customers but not so much for the workers overseas. That’s why asking the questions, who made my clothes?and how can we live more sustainably? is so important.
When we break down the costs of an item of clothing, the worker who made it recieves the smallest fraction of what a consumer pays for it because of deep-rooted structural power dynamics. The best example of this is the kit of the national English football team from the 2018 World Cup. Embellished with a Nike logo, it is the most expensive England kit ever made. They were sold to fans for as much as €180 – while the workers in Bangladesh who made them were earning less than €2 per day. On the other side of the pond, in the United States, although literally everything has gotten more expensive, the price of clothing hasn't risen with overall retail prices, since the 1990s.
If brands, which are committed to fair labour practices can’t be held accountable for how their clothes are made, can I be held responsible for snagging a $5 tshirt? The answer is complex. Perhaps, an accurate comparison can be drawn between plastic packaging in supermarkets. Similarly, it shouldn’t be up to the customers to fuel the change. Single use plastic should be outlawed and grocery stores should be responsible for investing into finding alternatives. But this is a simple case of supply and demand and it is unrealistic to expect companies to change their practices while business is thriving.
Single use plastic has caused an uproar in the last few years and it was largely the public who swayed the EU Parliament's decision to seal the ban on throwaway plastics by this year. As customers, we have arrived at a point where we need to put the same kind of pressure on large fashion companies to form legally binding agreements between unions and brands in order to solve the disconnect between profits, responsibility and accountability. Retailers, brands and customers must be involved much more closely and seriously concern themselves with what happens in the factories clothes are sourced from. Shoppers living in countries, which have surpassed the climax of their individual industrial revolutions must recognize that a higher price may have to be paid in exchange for providing a dignified life for millions of people all over the world, in countries that are still developing.
There are now hundreds of independent designers and brands paving the way towards this precise change. Ethical clothing is made with smaller supply chains, which ensure that people work in safe conditions, obtain fair salaries and benefits like childcare. Though a portion of sustainable fashion is produced in Europe or the United States, many companies choose to work with workshops in Asia, Africa or the Middle East. The willingness and commitment of these brands to function under more just conditions and still make a profit, demonstrates that an alternative model of fashion production that takes into account all the key players can work.
Ethical clothing is the new hot trend, and it’s one that we can all get behind. Buying sustainably no longer means hemp tote bags and tie dye shirts. This new generation of fashion designers has proven that we don’t have to sacrifice style for doing the right thing. We might have to spend more money while we do it, but we can now join a fashion movement that isn’t harmful to the people or the planet. But ethical clothing may not always be an option for those people who are struggling financially who may also find themselves wondering how can we live more sustainably? Well, we have normalized practices that should be illegal. If the industry doesn’t take charge, it is up to the public to put pressure on companies to commit to finding tangible solutions to the fundamental problems in global supply chains
Amid a global pandemic, the world faces a new set of challenges. In the upcoming years, we will witness a shift in the global apparel-sourcing market and the industry will need to partner with international manufacturers, buyers, workers and governments in order to embrace a more serious and all-encompassing transformation. In order to eliminate underpaid labor and the practice of bending or outright ignoring regulations for the sake of profit, the fashion sector will need to innovate, diversify and upgrade by investing in worker welfare, sustainability and infrastructure.