This month marks the 5th anniversary since the Rana Plaza building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The tragic loss of over a thousand garment workers shook the fashion industry hard, finally exposing the supply chain of how our clothes come to life, and at what cost. Sadly, we learnt, sometime at the cost of human lives.
That same year, the Fashion Revolution movement was founded in England, and other countries followed suit forming a global alliance of likeminded professionals calling for greater transparency, sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry. And now, 5 years after Rana Plaza, what progress has been made?
After Rana Plaza, working conditions and labor rights were suddenly put in the spotlight of successful fast fashion companies that have been exploiting third world countries for their financial gain.
The sacrifice of the Rana Plaza workers, was finally giving voice to two decades of private voluntary approaches to address worker’s rights abuses in apparel supply chains. A recent report by Mark Anner sheds some light on how the 2013 incident affected the previous unheard demands:
The report finds that gains have been severely limited in regards to wages, overtime hours, and work intensity in part due to the sourcing practices of the brands and retailers that sit at the top of global supply chains. There is one area where gains for workers have been dramatic: building safety. The program has delivered an improved margin of safety for more than 2.5 million garment workers and upgrades that have eliminated more than 97,000 identified hazards across more than 1,600 covered factories.
While safety may have improved, low wages are still a big controversy, which shows to me that companies have been abiding to public pressure and new regulations to better their workers safety conditions, but have not been interested in addressing the humanitarian aspect of a decent working wage.
We clearly need to keep the pressure on this matter, along with addressing Child Labor.
Child Labor is forbidden by law in most countries but continues to be rife in some of the poorest parts of the world.
The International Labor Organization estimates that 170 million are engaged in child labour, with many making textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond. The situation has been improving though. ILO estimates suggest child labour declined by 30% between 2000 and 2012, but still 11% of the world’s children are in situations that deprive them of their right to go to school without interference from work.
Unicef shares a recent report revealing that: “Recruiters in southern India convince parents in impoverished rural areas to send their daughters to spinning mills with promises of a well-paid job, comfortable accommodation, three nutritious meals a day and opportunities for training and schooling, as well as a lump sum payment at the end of three years. Their field research shows that ‘in reality, they are working under appalling conditions that amount to modern day slavery and the worst forms of child labour’.
Child labour is a particular issue for fashion because much of the supply chain requires low-skilled labour and some tasks are even better suited to children than adults. In cotton picking, employers prefer to hire children for their small fingers, which do not damage the crop.
Children are seen as obedient workers who slip under the radar, making them easy to manage. There is no supervision or social control mechanisms, no unions that can help them to bargain for better working conditions. These are very low-skilled workers without a voice, so they are easy targets.
Employers get away with it because the fashion supply chain is hugely complex and it is hard for companies to control every stage of production. That makes it possible to employ children without big brands and consumers ever finding out.
One of the biggest challenges in tackling child labour in the fashion supply chain is the complex supply chain for each garment. Even when brands have strict guidelines in place for suppliers, work often gets sub-contracted to other factories that the buyer may not even know about.”
What can we do about it? The Fair Wear Foundation has a list of over 120 brands that have signed up to its code of labour practices, which do not allow for the use of child labour. Accredited brands must ensure with regular audits that all of the suppliers in the cut-make-trim stage of production meet these standards, meaning it goes beyond most companies’ in-house policies.
And as consumers, we always have the ultimate power. Remember the Fashion Revolution mantra, to always ask #whomademyclothes!
Another concerning aspect the fashion revolution has been exposing in recent years is the environmental impact that fashion adds to global warming. Common cotton crop growth, for example, requires an exorbitant amount of water, and exposes farmers to deadly pesticides, while the toxic chemical dyes used in the industry, keep polluting our rivers and oceans.
And while greedy corporations are still exploiting the old routes, it has been inspiring to see mankind efforts to find new sustainable ways to produce textiles, that are less of a strain to our planet. Rediscovering ancient practices using vegetable fibers, or inventing new technologies in laboratories, the introduction of alternative fabrics has been mesmerizing thus far.
These factors surely contributed and inspired the growth of new sustainability driven companies, that are now building up momentum and increasing in number showing that some consumers are making more conscious shopping decisions and supporting slow fashion practices.
While it is still a niche market, the advocacy of celebrities such Emma Watson and a more impactful attention of mainstream fashion institutions will guide the new generations to make a difference with their shopping habits.
Lastly, I can’t forget to mention the tremendous progress that has been achieved in recent months in the animal rights front. After years of runway disruptions and activist manifestations of animal rights associations such as PETA and its supporters, finally many high profile designers have been sensitive to the call to stop using fur in their collections.
Some, like Vivian Westwood and Stella McCartney have been leading the way even before the Fashion Revolution movement exploded, showing it is possible to create glamorous looks without the need of killing animals. In recent months, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Armani, Versace, Furla, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Hilfiger, Hugo Boss and others declared they would stop using fur for good.
While United States has almost no federal regulations regarding fur farming, animals raised for their pelts are specifically exempted from the Animal Welfare Act. Most European countries—with the exception of those that have banned fur farming (Germany, Austria, Croatia, the United Kingdom, Norway, and in 2019, the Czech Republic)—have virtually no legal protections for animals raised for their fur.
Nothing has changed in the United States to make life better for fur-bearing animals of any kind. But just a few weeks ago, we saw again more promising signs. The entire city of San Francisco has become the first city in the world to ban fur. And in Europe, Amsterdam city council is set to vote on a initiative for a new law, which would see the sale of real animal furn banned in all Amsterdam markets this autumn. The vote comes the political Party for the Animals submitted a proposal for the fur ban.
These past 5 years have clearly shown a true fashion revolution is in place, and it is spreading rapidly in diverse ways, all leading to a more harmonized solution of meeting our needs without sacrificing any longer on our planet resources and its inhabitants. The route is still long and challenging, but we need to keep the hope alive, each of us can make a small contribution. So, thank you all, dear fashion revolutionaries out there!