APRIL 24th, 2019 will mark the sixth anniversary of the deadliest garment factory disaster in history. Six years earlier, on the steps of the Rana Plaza commercial building in Bangladesh, garment workers complained of unsafe structures and cracks in the floors and walls. Managers delivered an ultimatum: get to work or have your wages docked for the entire month. Fast forward a few hours, and most of these workers were dead.
All eight storeys of the Rana Plaza collapsed inward, with the pressure of illegally built top storeys too much for the structure to support. Thousands of factory workers fell through the floors, crushed or trapped by falling walls and machinery.
Officially, the Rana Plaza tragedy took more than 1000 lives, with another 2500 people permanently disabled, losing their livelihood without any compensation.
As the factory collapsed, the unjust conditions of garment workers were forever burnt into the collective consciousness of our society. But six years later, where do we stand? What has changed for garment workers around the world?
Historically, factories in the garment industry have always charged low production prices to stay competitive in producing ‘fast fashion’. For millions of workers worldwide, this means that wages remain horrifyingly low.
Amanda Hyde, owner of fair-trade boutique Hyde and Sylk, believes social media is partly to blame for the prevalence of cheap, ‘fast fashion’.
“Hashtags like ‘outfit of the day’ imply that you need a new outfit daily and because of this, the fashion warehouses that produce this fashion are not working under ideal conditions,” she says.
“[Workers are] getting paid less and working in cramped warehouses without cooling. They’re dropping from heat exhaustion and things that they don’t need to be exposed to.”
India and Bangladesh collectively employ over 21 million garment workers and only pay an average monthly wage equivalent to $100 AUD.
These minimum wages often remain unchanged for years, even as the cost of living rises significantly, meaning workers and their families are unable to escape the cycle of poverty.
According to Oxfam, it would cost only one per cent of clothing retail prices to ensure living wages are paid to the people who make our clothes.
Fortunately, positive changes are beginning to take shape due to the evolving social consciousness of Western consumers.
Kate Warner, owner of the vintage and fair-trade clothing store, Two Fridas, has seen the changing trends in Australian fashion during her lifetime.
“When I was growing up as a kid, repurposing and recycling clothes was seen as desperate… but in the last five to ten years, I’ve seen people are much more open to that kind of thing and are much more socially conscious about where things come from,” she says.
“I’m surprised how many customers ask me where things are sourced from, how they are made and how do we know it is made ethically, which is great!”
Sara Richardson, editorial manager at luxury fashion magazine Façon, has experienced the changing social consciousness of consumers in her past retail jobs.
“Customers would check the tags on clothing to see where they were made and they became concerned whenever the tag would say, ‘made in Bangladesh’,” she says.
Amanda has also noticed this trend and believes the demographic for ethical clothing is growing and changing.
“It’s so nice to have people walk into the store and not have to explain what fair-trade means,” she says.
‘Fashion Revolution’, now in its fifth year of reviewing and ranking global fashion brand disclosure rates, reports in its 2018 Fashion Transparency Index that 78 per cent of consumers believed it is at least somewhat important for a company to be transparent. More than two million individuals also participated in Fashion Revolution’s ‘#WhoMadeMyClothes?’ social media campaign and downloaded resources from their website.
Sara noticed the influence of Fashion Revolution within her workplace, explaining how a lot of brands were taking part in the campaign to promote awareness of safe manufacturing methods.
While the increased interest in social responsibility is extremely promising, both Kate and Amanda feel that socially conscious fashion is yet to reach the majority of Australians.
“In Australia, we’d like to think that everybody has the ability to spend their dollars wisely but in low socioeconomic areas, that’s not always possible,” says Amanda.
In response to the increased consumer interest in ethically created fashion, many Australian brands have been quick to sign accords and gain accreditation that supports the ethical quality of their products.
As of 2018, more than 150 brands have signed the Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh which is a legally binding agreement between companies and unions to complete independent inspections of facilities. In Australia, companies such as Fashion Bunker are signatories to the Australian Fashion Labels Code of Conduct.
While these actions do bring publicity to the cause, the 2016 Australian Fashion Report suggests that the intentions of these brands are questionable. It is unclear whether any tangible change occurs from accreditations and codes of conduct or whether they are just an opportunity for retailers to trick their way into a new thriving market.
However, since 2013, brands such as Adidas and Reebok have shown their dedication to improving their impact on the garment industry by making production operations more transparent. The ASOS brand has also improved their transparency rate by 18% in the last year.
Transparency is vital to create tangible change as it encourages brands to become accountable for their actions.
Carry Somers, Fashion Revolution’s Founder and Global Operations Director, says in the 2018 Fashion Transparency Index that transparency is like water.
“After the Rana Plaza factory collapsed… transparency started a slow trickle. It began bubbling up through the cracks. Now it is seeping into some of the darkest corners, permeating the fabric of the industry.”
Sara agrees, stating that greater transparency in this current social climate is most important.
“The world of fashion needs transparency in order for it to grow stronger, more sustainable and more accountable,” she says.
But while brands are attempting to increase transparency and improve conditions for garment workers, they fail to look further down the production supply chain.
Farmers and producers of raw materials such as cotton, wool, leather and plastics are the most exploited and forgotten members of the garment creation chain. Uzbekistan, home of the world’s fifth largest cotton industry, is said to exploit millions of workers in its fields each year with reports of child and forced labour, appalling conditions and threats of violence.
In 2016, only 31 per cent of Australian companies knew more than 75 per cent of their input suppliers and only 5 per cent knew who supplied their raw materials. After two years, Fashion Revolution reports that this trend continues with only one brand able to publish their raw material suppliers out of 150 surveyed brands.
However, leading company, the Cotton On Group, is aiming to integrate sustainable cotton across all six of its apparel brands by 2020. While these actions set a great precedent for others to follow, Cotton On remains one of few companies that have extended their knowledge of raw material processes.
To avoid funding unethical production of raw materials, both Kate and Amanda have sought to stock fair-trade brands within their stores.
“I searched far and wide online and did a lot of emailing to ask questions about how things were made,” says Kate.
“I found a lot of things were advertised as traditional or made in villages but as soon as I asked more questions, they would go quiet on me.”
Kate now stocks a certified fair-trade brand called Abrazo which is co-designed by communities in Oaxaca and Chiapas in Mexico. These communities use traditional production methods and sewing designs such as hand weaving and embroidery.
Amanda exclusively stocks fair-trade brands including Keshet, Karma East and Surya.
Whether you exclusively shop fair-trade or source all of your wardrobe from fast fashion outlets, the fashion industry impacts us all. This industry generates over a trillion dollars of export revenue for low and middle-income nations and in nations like Bangladesh and Cambodia, garment sales account for almost 90 per cent of yearly exports. The fashion industry is a huge employer of workers internationally and could likely play a substantial role in reshaping communities and lifting them out of poverty.
But how do we ensure this industry lives up to its potential?
Kate, Amanda and Sara all believe that more people must be made aware of the social movement toward a more socially sustainable industry.
“I think there’s a movement of young people that are really socially aware… But there are people who aren’t aware and still buy things, wear them once and move on,” says Kate.
“It’s all about getting the message out there and promoting it constantly. With social media there’s so many clever ways to do it,” says Amanda.
“When people start to see those messages over and over again it really starts to sink in.”
Kate also hopes that consumers begin to understand and appreciate the value of small artisan trade.
“There are people making [these garments] with their hands and doing that for many generations and it is far better quality than anything mass produced. So maybe save your pennies and buy one or two of something really special instead of buying one of every colour of something that looks similar.”
Good practice in fashion requires more effort and sensibility than ever before. Brands must know and publicise who stitched their clothes, who dyed the materials and who farmed the cotton and ensure that at each stage of production, their workers are treated with dignity and respect.