Just two years ago on April 24 2012, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh crumbled to ruins in what remains the world's worst garment factory accident in history. The eight-storey building housed five different factories, each of which serviced some of the world's largest clothing companies. Government officials put the collapse down to substandard building materials, however many believe that it was instead a poor oversight into building regulations and worker protection.
An inability to comply with building regulations like fire safety protocols is actually a recurring problem in factories like these — specifically those that operate in some of the more economically disadvantaged nations around the world. According to a report by The Washington Post, "An architect whose firm designed the Rana Plaza building said Sunday that it had not been intended to handle heavy industrial equipment, let alone the three floors that were illegally added later. The equipment used by the five garment factories that occupied Rana Plaza included huge generators, which were turned on shortly before the building crumbled". The civil society campaign, Clean Clothes Campaign, has found that at the time of the collapse, "At least 29 global brands had recent or current orders with at least one of the five garment factories in the Rana Plaza building. Each of these brands was a complicit participant in the creation of an environment that ultimately led to the deaths and maiming of thousands of individuals." These brands included the likes of popular Spanish brand Mango and Zara's parent company, Inditex.
Since then, we have seen some positive change in this area, however there is still much to be done. For example, a number of fashion brands have since signed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire Building and Safety — an independent agreement designed to make all garment factories in Bangladesh safe workplaces. Following the Rana Plaza collapse, brands that include H&M, Zara and Primark have all signed up to a legally binding agreement to help finance fire safety and building improvements in the Bangladesh factories they use. In addition to this, the Bangladeshi government has agreed to relax trade union laws, allowing the country's four million garment workers to form trade unions without permission from factory owners. Finally, following news that Rana Plaza workers were paid as little as $38USD per month, the Bangladeshi government also announced a plan to raise the minimum wage for garment workers. It remains to be seen whether this has instituted real change though.
On a brand-based level too, some companies like H&M have made a commitment to change in this area, by working with factories that provide higher wages, sourcing exclusively organic cotton and launching a recycling initiative to reduce the amount of clothing that ends up in landfill. That said, it must be acknowledged that these things can be very difficult to monitor. As an open letter from the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia to H&M's President and Chief Executive Karl-Johan Persson read: "As a business with high ethical standards, you will face significant challenges in partnering with Ethiopian government-controlled businesses." The letter pointed out that corrupt governments can often get in the way of well meaning intentions from the fashion industry and this is an issue that still needs to be addressed on a global level.
Further to this, the low cost clothing offered still continue to place downward pressure on wages, especially as other brands struggle to compete. One especially useful change that H&M has implemented though, is the introduction of consumer labelling that provides customers with information about how and where a garment was produced. In a statement, Karl-Johan Persson said, "We are trying to make [customers] more engaged. Most people are not quite there".
Indeed, companies need to do their part, but greater consumer awareness and responsibility is also necessary to bring about real change. While many brands still have a lot of work to do in terms of their own responsible practice, change also needs to take place on a consumer level. If we don't call for brands to provide greater transparency in how their garments are produced, then we too become complicit in the greater problem.
There is no excuse for brands not taking greater responsibility in the production of their clothing today. As ethical fashion organisation Clean Cut points out, brands of all shapes and sizes are capable of introducing sustainability and ethics into their production in all different ways. Presenting a talk at MBFWA, alongside ethical brands like Kit Willow and Kowtow, the organisation's co-founder Kelly Elkin told Catalogue, "Each label has a unique take on integrating a responsible supply chain into their business, whether that's through local production, ECA accreditation, working with artisans or new technological advances, there is not just one way".
With all this in mind, it is important for us all to become more engaged with these issues and to take responsibility for the clothing we purchase. All it takes is a little research in order to support those companies that are making an effort in different ways. If brands can show that they are taking genuine steps to ensure a better social future for the fashion industry, then that should certainly be celebrated. In our own wardrobes, too, some of the simplest choices can often be the most powerful.
Fashion Revolution Day is tomorrow. Here's how you can help change the fashion industry for the better.
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