The Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, which occurred 9 years ago in April 2013, shone the spotlight on the global fashion industry’s worst kept secret and sparked a million conversations. For the first time, the fashion world acknowledged the dark underbelly of the industry – the dismal working conditions of workers in the factories in the poor and emerging countries that churned out fashion for some of the biggest global fashion brands.
The Rana Plaza tragedy laid bare the intersectionality of environment and ethics, of people across the supply chain and the planet, and kicked off the movement for sustainable fashion that has accelerated in recent years.
The Rana Plaza Tragedy
Rana Plaza was an eight-storeyed building in Savar, Dhaka. It housed several garment construction factories that employed over 5,000 people from rural Bangladesh. The units manufactured clothes for various international brands like Benetton, Primark, Gucci, Versace, etc. The tall building collapsed on April 24th, 2013, resulting in the death of 1134 workers, and with nearly 2,500 people injured.
Source: Al Jazeera
This tragedy was not unexpected as massive cracks in the pillars of the building had led to the evacuation of the premises the previous day. However, the workers were forced to resume work the next morning. Due to the vibrations from the machinery, and the large number of workers packed in the room, the building collapsed, causing the horrific tragedy.
The mishap, though not the first in the clothing industry, was the deadliest of all mishaps and sent alarm bells ringing across the fashion industry.
The Fast Fashion Problem
Fast Fashion is a vicious cycle of consumption that relies on quick and low-cost production, cheap raw materials, and exploitation of workers in poor countries to produce disposable fashion that is inexpensive for customers, encouraging them to use, throw and buy more. The industry thrives on churning out new collections, based on the so-called latest trends, colours, and silhouettes, taking them from design to store shelves in a matter of weeks.
The explosion of social media, the obsession with celebrity ‘looks’, the fast-growing cult of ‘influencers’, the social unacceptability of repeating outfits, and the desire to stay on top of the latest styles, all feed the consumers’ buying frenzy.
Simply put, the fast fashion business model is about brands producing cheaply and selling more, and consumers buying more and discarding quickly.
As a result, while the number of garments bought by an individual has gone up, the money spent by consumers on buying them has decreased steadily. For instance, the number of clothing items bought by women in a year in the UK nearly doubled from 19 in 1997 to 34 by 2007. Meanwhile, the average spend on clothing by a US household was 12% of the household income in the 1950s and came down to only 2.8% of their income by 2010, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.
This extracts a heavy environmental, social and human cost.
The Social And Environmental Cost of Fast Fashion
It was reported that the workers at Rana Plaza were required to stitch sections of garments in half a minute, for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week and they earned only 8,000 BDT, which is less than $100, a month.
The working conditions across the garment manufacturing countries like Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, etc are often unsafe and unhygienic, with inadequate health and fire safety measures, poor ventilation, and exploitative wages for overworked workers. This is compounded by toxic chemicals, dyes, and pesticides they are exposed to without proper precautions.
Global fashion brands, in pursuit of the bottom line, often turn a blind eye to the impact on human lives as they focus on driving down production costs. The Fashion Transparency Index 2021 shows that over 95% of brands do not disclose how many workers in their supply chain are paid a living wage, nor do they have a roadmap to ensure a living wage for all the workers.
This is also a gender issue. 80% of the workforce in most countries is women who are vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence. Recently, following the murder of a Dalit woman worker by her supervisor in Tamil Nadu, H&M signed a legally binding agreement to tackle sexual harassment of women workers in clothing factories, the first such initiative in Asia.
Source: World Resources Institute
Finally, the business of disposable fashion is driven by overconsumption. The linear model, based on excessive production that is energy-intensive, and excessive wastage, with clothes discarded well before the end of their lifecycle, is environmentally damaging and unsustainable.
The Wake-Up Call
To avoid catastrophic accidents like the Rana Plaza f from recurring, several brands signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh in 2013, a legally binding pact that ensured the factories underwent regular safety checks and were audited for the working environment for workers. This has been expanded in 2021 and hundreds of brands have joined this initiative committed to bringing transparency to the fashion supply chain.
The Rana Plaza tragedy woke up the world to the realities of fast fashion, and strides have been made with brands becoming more transparent and making commitments to be more responsible in their sourcing practices. But brands are driven by markets and consumers, and, for the change to be transformational and lasting, the pushback has to come from consumers.
But brands are driven by markets and consumers, and, for the change to be transformational and lasting, the pushback has to come from consumers.
What We Can Do
Consumers have the power of the wallet! They can catalyse change by becoming aware of the issues plaguing the fashion industry, becoming conscious of what they buy, and by questioning brands and businesses.
- Get involved – As conscious consumers, we can educate ourselves on the ethical, social, and environmental costs of fast fashion that have been documented extensively in books, research papers, and articles. Several organisations like Clean Clothes Campaign, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Fashion Revolution are engaged in driving transformation in the fashion industry and offer resources to brands and consumers to support them in their journey to adopting sustainable fashion. Fashion Revolution, founded in 2013 by Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers, observes Fashion Revolution Week in April every year to raise awareness among consumers and demand transparency in the supply chain from brands.
Source: Fashion Revolution
- Ask questions – Consumers can drive change by holding brands to account. They have the power to ask questions and demand that brands be transparent about their supply chains and urge them to ensure safety and fair wages for workers. The hashtag #WhoMademyClothes was coined in 2014 and it started trending across social media platforms to communicate, express solidarity, and create an impact. People started seeking answers from brands and amplifying the campaign online, and it has today become a rallying cry for ethical and sustainable fashion, from cotton producers to consumers.
Source – WhoWhatWear
- Choose better – Choose slow fashion brands that are transparent and prioritise ethical and sustainable business practices. Slow fashion brands use sustainable materials, produce in small batches, often work directly with artisans and treat people across the supply chain fairly. Look out for trusted certifications from organisations like Fairtrade that are engaged with farmers and workers to ensure sustainable incomes, fair wages safe working conditions. Know how to tell brands that ‘greenwashes’ from those that are truly purpose-driven and care for people and the environment.
- Wear longer – Adopt the mantra of ‘Buy Less, Wear Longer’ because ultimately, a fundamental shift in how we think of fashion is the key to sustainable fashion. Instead of choosing the cheapest options, invest in pieces that can be loved for longer! Repair, exchange, rent, upcycle, there are plenty of ways to extend the lifecycle of clothing that are fun and easy on the pocket too. Embrace wearing an outfit multiple times. Celebrities like Meghan Markle and Deepika Padukone have made repeating outfits a style statement, and there is no excuse for the rest of us to be embarrassed about it.
Browse here to find a wealth of information, ideas, tips, and exciting brands to set you off on a rewarding journey to conscious, sustainable fashion.
Since the Rana Plaza tragedy and the ensuing outrage, many brands have stepped up and implemented better worker safety and fair wages standards. But the Covid 19 pandemic, which led to the shuttering down of stores and subsequent cancellation of supplier orders worth billions of dollars, has once again exposed the vulnerability of workers in clothing factories, as they lost jobs and incomes.
It will take a concerted effort by governments, brands, manufacturers, and consumers to join hands and reaffirm their commitment to bringing change in the global fashion industry, for a sustainable future for the industry and the planet.