As you may know, in 2013 on the 24th of April a truly shocking and horrific tragedy took place. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, a factory named Rana Plaza collapsed killing over 1300 people and injuring thousands more low-paid garment workers. As the news unfolded harrowing images of workers, many young women, trapped and buried alive emerged, exposing the realities of people working in an unsafe and unfit building producing cheap clothing for European fashion retailers – including Primark, Benetton and Mango.
The scale of the collapse and death toll meant it caught the attention of the global media, and for a short time placed centre stage the ugly truth about the fast fashion industry; cheap clothes and made by cheap labour in awful conditions. While the eyes were on the disaster there was a scramble to name and shame the individual brands using the factory some of whom have still evaded paying any compensation.
So two years on, as the dust still settles on this tragic disaster -what have we learnt and what has changed?
Something that has really shocked me when I speak to campaigners working in the human rights sector in fashion is that this incident is far from a one off, lethal factory fires happen across Asia on an annual basis. What was different about Rana Plaza is that the sheer enormity of the disaster kept the media interested long enough to engage with customers and campaigners alike. It became a tangible snapshot of what is wrong in the fast fashion sector, that retailers will put profit before people and the planet with tragic consequences. Most people will acknowledge that allowing people in any supply chains to work in dangerous, hazardous, fearful or exploitative working conditions is unethical and simply not right. If it that case why, in 2015, is ensuring responsible, safe and fair employment across the fashion industry so difficult?
Much of the way labour improvements are encouraged and enforced in the industry is through fashion brands signing up to voluntary codes of conduct and independent auditing of factories to ensure they are complying, rather than any tough international legislation to protect vulnerable workers. The Clean Clothes Campaign believe many of the codes are woefully inadequate and are campaigning for a mandatory living wage.
Fashion supply chains are notoriously difficult to map and audit as they often have been produced in many stages in different countries by lots of different people. Take for example a pair of jeans; someone has grown the cotton, it has then been spun, dyed and woven into a cloth. The metal findings will have been mined and processed before being manufactured, pocket linings may be another different cloth from another source. Finally the denim will be cut and the jeans assembled before a series of washes and processing create the final look of the jeans. There is no single, recognisable certification which ensures all the people in all these processes have been paid and treated fairly and often brands have only loose knowledge of where and with who all these steps happen making enforcing labour standards incredibly difficult. The ‘make it cheap, sell it cheap and sell it in huge volume’ business model which must constantly turn out new styles and designs does not support investment into the supply chain. The corporate model is focused on profit, it seems at all costs and – in the case of Rana Plaza – at the cost of thousands of lives.
As fashion brands struggle to improve (or turn a blind eye to improving) working conditions, there is a question about why the customer does not do more to try to buy in a more responsible way. Many consumer studies show a value disparity between what customers say they want from a product and the types of products we actually buy; in general we like to think we will buy something ethical and sustainable but when out shopping we are easily seduced by lure of a cheap fashion fix of dubious origin. Does this simply mean the general public have low values when it comes to appreciating the rights of people in other parts of the world, that they just don’t care?
I think perhaps it is much more complicated than that and actually what makes it easy for customers to turn a blind eye is that there is a fundamental lack of understanding by the general public of what actually goes into making a piece of clothing. When in the fitting room trying on new jeans, do many people think about the farmer who grew the cotton, let alone the many machinists that stitched them together? As we have exported our manufacturing over the past half century we have also exported our knowledge and understanding of how clothes are constructed and the many steps that go into making them. At the same time sewing has all but disappeared from the school curriculum meaning many people reach adulthood without the ability to even thread a needle and sew on a button. Surely this knowledge gap must make it hard for customers in the UK to understand why there is a problem when they are confronted with jeans for under £15 in a fast fashion retailer.
To make things worse some brands are using confusing language which muddies the issues. An example of that its the recent advertising campaign by Converse. They have photographed portraits of over 200 worn and customised pairs of converse with the slogan ‘made by….’ with the name of the owners and their signatures. The portraits come from shoes owners including Patti Smith and Andy Warhol as well as the companies committed fans. The idea is presented by Ian Stewart the VP of global marketing for Converse as a celebration of the people who love to wear their Chuck Talyor trainers and as a celebration of ‘self -expression around the world’. On the surface this is a harmless advert which will be supported by a social media campaign asking customers to send in pictures of their Converse.
There is one aspect of these adverts which I like is the appreciation of the relationship we can build up with our clothing. I have a pair of Converse high tops I bought with my student loan in 2005 and customised in 2010 with a white paint pattern which I still wear all the time (in fact I have them on as I write this!). As they have worn in they have developed their own personality and taken on a new aesthetic which I have played a part in creating. It is unusual for a fashion brand to engage in what happens to their items of clothing after they leave the shop and even more unusual for them to exhibit images of worn products rather then box fresh items in their advertising campaign.
My issue with this campaign is that it reinforces the idea of a totally invisible supply chain, as if the trainers just appear ready formed and then are ‘made by’ their owner. Of course we know that they contain woven cloth, synthetic rubber soles, metal components, glue and many other interlinings all of which have been manufactured and then assembled into a shoe.
So a combination of a disengaged customers with a lack of understanding of how clothes are put together, combined with an unregulated global supply chain exploited by fashion retailers (squeezing down the price of production to increase margins and profit on value clothing) has created a climate for a disaster like Rana Plaza. The critical question is how can we learn from this day and make real changes that are felt by millions of people worldwide employed by the fashion manufacturing industry?
Firstly charities like Clean Clothes Campaign and Labour Behind the Label are campaigning hard to pressure global fashion businesses to take responsibility for the workers in their supply chains and use their position to lobby governments to develop policies to support these workers. Their work is really critical in challenging the status quo in the fast fashion industry and they work tirelessly to ensure brands are complying to a set of standards that are fair.
Secondly ethical fashion labels have been popping up around the world offering customers something that they can trust has been made in a responsible way. Following the work of trailblazers People Tree are brands who tirelessly map their supply chain and develop relationships with their producers ,such as Here Today Here Tomorrow who produce hand knitted accessories with a fair trade co-operative group in Nepal and Seher Minaz who is producing jewellery with a group of women in rural Pakistan. Other labels including us at Antiform and knitwear designer Katie Jones are developing new business models in order to sustain producing clothing in the UK, to bring fashion production back onto people’s door step and laying bear the production process both physically through open studios and through social media.
And last but not least is Fashion Revolution Day, a co-ordinated international campaign which runs on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza Factory collapse, to engage directly with consumers around the world in this movement towards fairer working conditions. Fashion Revolution has developed into into a global movement with actions, activities and demonstrations happening in 71 different countries and has been successful in continuing to keep these issues in the international press. Fashion Revolution Day asks the public to wear their clothes inside out and ask the companies that produced them ‘who made my clothes?’ – a simple yet provocative question that unfortunately many will not be able to answer.