Why Are We Continuing to Fail 5 Years After Rana Plaza?

by Sora Alfatlawi

It took less than just 90 seconds for 1,134 workers to be killed and leaving around 2500 life-changing injuries after a building collapsed due to structural failure. On 24 April 2013, the Savar building, or Rana Plaza as its more commonly known in the Dhaka District, Bangladesh, was an eight story building that grasped headlines all over the world. Described as a ‘mass industrial homicide’ by unions, many saw this as the beginning of a revolution that would begin to ensure the safety of workers in underdeveloped countries. While it had remained widely unclear of the full list of companies that were sourcing clothes from Rana Plaza, around 250 companies signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a five-year independent, legally binding document between brands and trade unions, put together to ensure the safe work environment in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The same year, The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a five year non-binding commitment was signed by 28 major retailers with the intention of improving the safety of Bangladesh ready-made garment industry. It covers 785 factories and approximately 1.4 million workers, who have been given basic fire safety training, alongside 27,000 security guards who have been trained in fire safety leadership. The alliance has been responsible for 85% of all required factory repairs partnering with the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), providing a graduate-level short course for Bangladesh engineers – fitting as faulty electrical wiring is one of the biggest causes of death amongst workers – 500 dead between 2006 – 2012.

It was hardly a secret that brands had been mass producing in underdeveloped countries, where pay was low, working conditions were unbearable and child labour – sometimes as young as 5, employed to help support their families. Yet for decades, as smoke screen covered this dirty secret, often masked behind over the top advertising and affordable prices for the latest trends, with most having walked out of the likes of H&M and Primark without any real idea of the how their clothing came to be. Undoubtedly the Accord in Bangladesh has improved the safety of the workers drastically. Factories were subject to inspection, with those failing to follow rules being barred from working with said brands. A study by the Centre for Global Workers’ Rights showed the significance of the Accord. In the past five years, more than 97,000 hazards in 1,600 factories were remedied and 900 factories closed for not complying with standards, improving the lives of around 2.5 million workers. However, with the Accord’s 5-year tenure almost up and with many calling to renew it, organisations such as Fashion Revolution have shed transparency on these issues but are we ever going to see any real change?

While the disastrous events of Rana Plaza were an eye-opening moment for many – both consumers and the industry, it would be almost farfetched to claim that this tragedy has had an impact on the acceleration of fast fashion. The consumer needs to be on trend while spending as little as possible, means brands have no choice but to supply where there is demand. As so goes on the vicious circle and yet again we have slowly begun to turn a blind eye at the uncomfortable truth, that does not fit the typical narrative, that exploitation is not exclusive to any one group keeps us in denial. It wouldn’t come as a shock if you heard most people believed that these types of working conditions were happening in underdeveloped countries. The real shock came as the Los Angeles Times ran an article as a result of an investigation by the California Department of Labour, where workers were earning as little as $4 an hour in a basement in downtown Los Angeles, where the state-mandated wage is $10 an hour. The factory, producing clothes for retailers, such as Forever21, TJ Maxx and Ross Dress for Less was part of an investigation which found companies had swindled workers of around $1.1 million. It has since ordered the factories to pay $1.3 million in lost wages. Further inspection found the exploitation of workers, including many who identified as “undocumented”. Closer to home it seems no better. The Ethical Trading Imitative, who campaign for workers rights reported factories in Leicester, UK, home to a third of the UK’s garment manufacturing, were subject to ongoing investigations on low wages – as little as £3 an hour, unsafe working conditions and blocked fire escapes. River Island and New Look were amongst those reported to have used the suppliers, while Boohoo and Missguided have been found to use suppliers that have broken employment laws on several occasions.

As individuals, we have the power to make a change. In fact, any change is more likely to start with us re-evaluating our need for fast fashion and become more consciously aware of where we buy our clothes from and if we really need to be routinely walking into Forever21 and H&M and buying clothes we may not really need. It would require criminally cheap labour to produce goods at a low price so they can be in turn sold at a low price for brands to create a profit and until we decide that we no longer want to shop like this, there is nothing stopping brands supplying where there is demand, because or brands there is not an ethical way to obtain the volume of clothes produced at the prices they are sold.  Jeff Goins, author of The Art of Work, articulated this issue perfectly, stating, ‘there are two types of social media users: “sprinklers” and “vacuums.” The sprinklers of social media share content and the vacuums suck it all up. It’s in a way like the food chain, one can’t exist without the other’. Getting out of the hole that we dug will prove to be a much more difficult task. The influence of social media means we are constantly exposed to new trends, whether it be on Instagram, or sites such as Pinterest and Polyvore, whether we know it or not on the lookout for the next big thing. Retailers have found a way to capitalise on the backs of big brands, who carry all the trends for the upcoming season, with hefty price tags that most people just cannot afford. Huge retailers such as Boohoo, which features 20,000 styles on its site and debuts as much as 700 new styles a week and Fashion Nova, dubbed as an ‘Instagram brand’, whose design and buying team works with more than 1000 manufactures and release up to 600 new styles a week and is now reportedly more popular than brands such as Chanel and Saint Laurent amongst millennials. Influencer marketing has become a key strategy and brands and forking over thousands of pounds to promote influencers with thousands or millions of followers to promote their clothes. Boohoo has seen their profits nearly double thanks to their new marketing strategy so this possesses the current unsolvable question of why would we spend big bucks when we can get almost identical styles for a fraction of the price?

No two generations are the same. It most instances replicating a model for two sets of different people is almost a recipe for disaster. Human behaviour has changed and the fashion industry may be finding it the hardest to adapt. Since the birth of fashion week in 1943, the twice a year model which happens months in advance of the season allowed press and buyers to preview the collections and give time for retailers to incorporate the upcoming collections into their marketing. It was much easier to follow trends when they happened twice a year, however, consumers are now less inclined to shop as most once did. Instead of building a timeless wardrobe with carefully selected, yet quality pieces that would last you several years, consumers – mostly millennials have a deep urge to be up to date as soon as it happens. Largely a conformist society, our clothes are a representation of who we are and our innate desire to let our clothing epitomise that to the rest of society makes a difficult detachment from the constant need to update your wardrobe and yourself. But as ever the one constant in life is change and both the industry will adapt with the acceleration of fast fashion, as will we as individuals when we begin to become more consciously aware of the effects this has on ourselves and the environment.





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