Inside an apparel factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by NYU Stern BHR
This post first appeared on the Good On You blog.
When an eight-story building collapsed in Dhaka two years ago, killing 1134 garment workers, we all felt uncomfortable. But this was more than mere compassion of the kind felt whenever there is a tragedy in a distant location. All of a sudden the clothes we had on, the soft fabric against our skin became heavy, itchy; suffocating. Because while we watched limp, sooty figures being carried from the rubble, we realised that there were faces, families and stories woven into our clothes.
Had we contributed to this?
The Rana Plaza collapse will be remembered as one of the worst industrial disasters in history. But more than that, through the awakening so many of us felt in the days and months following, it has become a catalyst for a revolution.
And though Rana Plaza highlighted the thirst for profit at the expense of safety and fair pay in Bangladesh, it also started a conversation about the impacts of a global fashion industry with a long and secretive supply chain. Forced labour in Uzbeki cotton fields, toxic workplaces in tanning yards across Asia – the developing world is wearing the weight of our clothing on its shoulders.
The rise of Fast Fashion
The textile industry has changed in the last half a century. Our grandparents used to buy a coat and wear it for 20 years. Today it is not uncommon to have a few coats and jackets, and to purchase new clothes every season.
It’s a phenomenon known as Fast Fashion.
In the 1980s and 90s retailers shipped manufacturing offshore where wages were cheaper and labour laws could be exploited. Brands and retailers have since capitalised on this to push profit margins more than ever before. T-shirts can be made for as little as fifty cents and catwalk trends hit the stores within days. No longer does the fashion season consist of two collections per year: we are basically told to buy for 52 separate seasons. New collections hit stores weekly, and ‘old’ stock receives hefty discounts.
Why is Rana Plaza so important?
Rana Plaza shook many of us out of our fast fashion daze: these were the people sewing our jeans, lining our jackets, stitching our buttonholes.
It also restarted a conversation about the social responsibility of clothing companies that, while successfully changing policies at Nike and many other global brands, had somewhat stalled somewhere in the mid-2000s.
Soon an international outcry demanding labour rights including safety requirements erupted around the world.
Over 150 apparel corporations from 20 countries in Australia, North America, Europe and Asia signed the Accord on Fire & Building Safety in Bangladesh. The Accord ensures factories receive independent inspection and public reporting of the results.
Many retailers, like Uniqlo’s owners Fast Retailing, were initially reluctant to commit to a binding agreement. But as consume voices gained momentum, their demand for companies to do better won out, and more and more retailers have since committed to better working conditions for their workers. (Uniqlo has since signed The Accord).
And whether or not it concerns Bangladesh, consumers more than ever want to be aware of where their clothing comes from and who made them. That’s why we started Good On You. We wanted to give people the information they want – when they need it – so they can be more informed about the story behind their purchases. By bringing together a range of research and ratings, we analyse and give brands a simple rating so that we – consumers – can make informed decisions and be a part of the global movement.
What still needs to change
The Accord has done a lot to give consumers confidence that brands they regularly buy from are taking the Bangladeshi safety issue seriously. But 60% of garment factories are still uncertified under the scheme, so the problem is far from solved. And while the minimum wage has gone up dramatically, it’s still the lowest in the world.
It’s still just as important as ever to ask “who made my clothes?”
And so on this Friday April 24th, we’re doing just that. We’re joining Fashion Revolution and thousands around the world to turn our clothes inside out, take a selfie and spread the word about conscious consumption on social media. We’ll be using the hashtags #fashionrev, #goodonyou, and #insideout to contribute to the wider campaign around Australia.
Like avoiding a cheap burger because we know it’s not going to nourish our body, consumers are opting to invest in timeless pieces, pay a little more, and take an interest in the health of their clothing. And as the momentum builds, a change will certainly take place.
Other ways you can be a change maker
Don’t restrict your fashion revolution to one day.
Here’s some simple ways to be a more mindful shopper in your everyday life: