On April 24, 2013 a factory building called Rana Plaza collapsed in the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The building was unsound and the safety of all its in occupants was put at risk daily, but the owners of the factories had to fulfill quotas and honor contracts so the tell-tale signs were ignored and that day, at 8:57am, 1,134 people died and over 2,500 were injured in the name of $5 shirts.
We all need or want new clothes and in America, the average consumer buys over 68 items of clothing per person per year; that’s more than 1 item per week. We often buy clothes that just sit in our closets with the tag still on. We shop and we don’t realize or understand that the clothes we buy are shackled by an enormous ball and chain: the clothing label on our clothes.
The fashion industry has been very busy and successful at making us all forget about the fact that human beings in Bangladesh, not machines, have sown what you are wearing at the moment. The fashion industry is a trillion dollar industry (the second largest in the US), employing approximately 23.6 million people and is the second largest polluter in the world after the oil industry and is also one of the largest abusers of human rights. From cotton fields to sweatshops, the fast fashion industry leaves a trail less than fashionable and yet we rarely ever hear about it. We forget that these people (mostly young women) work 12 to 15 hours/day 6 to 7 days/week in conditions we would be appalled by. From toilets with no toilet paper, no work space ventilations and children under 12 years of age working the same hours as grown adults with no paid time off and no sick time, The tens of thousands of people that work in the garment industry in Bangladesh often live on .25cents/hour salaries.
This is now 2015. 2 years later, Has anything changed? Are things better, worse?
Let’s start with the “worse." Our friends at American Apparel and their “made in Bengladesh” ad. Bravo! I did not know that the 1134 individuals -most of them being young females- that died were up for objectification and sexualization, not that it’s ever ok. Although I applaud them for taking a stand on making their clothes downtown LA, they have weird and very creepy ads such as is the aforementioned “made in Bangladesh” ad. This is not fashion, this is pure exploitation.
Onto the “better” outcomes. The most important thing I should mention at this point is that things have been done to compensate the families of the victims of Rana Plaza. The Bangladeshi government created what is commonly referred to as "The Arrangement.” It is a trust fund dedicated to the victims and their families. It is managed by The International Labour Organization, a UN entity. So far, over $12 million have been donated and distributed directly to the families thanks to mobile banking.
Also, the owners of the factories housed in the Rana Plaza building gave the families of the victims sums equivalent to 9 months worth of salaries as a compensation: that’s $612 if you base it on the average Bangladesh garment worker salary of $68/month. Also, the apparel brands and many not associated with Rana Plaza have signed a fire and safety agreement to prevent hiring subcontractors with less than adequate facilities.
One important thing I saw that made me optimistic is that education works and is our best hope to transform the fashion industry. I came across a 5 part short web series a Norwegian newspaper produced called “sweatshop - deadly fashion.” It is an edifying tale of fashion bloggers coming to grasps with the reality of fast fashion by traveling to Bangladesh. It is well done though I wished they had dug a bit deeper in the transformation the bloggers experienced over the course of their voyage from ignorance to educated adults about the reality of the fast fashion industry.
For full disclosure, I will tell you that I am no better than than anybody else. I have bought and sometimes still buy clothes that have been made with questionable ethics. Even though it kills me, I am a new entrepreneur with a very tight personal budget and I quite frankly cannot afford to buy better made clothes. That’s why I do what I do on a daily basis with my company, vavavida.com. It is my crazy dream that I can be part of changing the face and pace of the fashion industry. I want to be a disruptor of the system as it is. That’s why vavavida.com is based on what we call the full circle economics: a sustainable system of retailing jewelry made ethically (i.e. fair trade) and giving back to the countries where we source our products by investing part of the retail price in NGOs that do great work like Project Concern International and their Women Empowered program. We designed our company to be a change maker and there are many others just like us. Just check out the Ethical Fashion Source network for a list of (Mostly UK based) fashion designers with a conscience. Also, there are people like model Lily Cole doing good things to change fashion. Also, I will give props to H&M who, I think, is actively trying to clean up their act but the jury is still out on that one.
So, please just consider what your options are when you buy clothes and wonder if you really need a new $5 shirt. Just look at the tag before buying and remember that a young girl working 12 hours/day working for .25cents/hour might have made this. So basically, the opposite of the American Apparel ad.