Shopping is considered one of the most popular leisure activities worldwide. People take days off from work to treat themselves and go for a shopping spree with their friends and/or family. Teenagers head out on the weekend to their nearest shopping centre, hoping to update their wardrobe and remain in-trend. Clothes are gifted to us on birthdays, Christmas, Diwali, Eid and also given as random surprises. Some people use shopping as therapy to recover from a break-up – there’s nothing a new dress and shoes won’t fix! Some people are simply addicted to shopping.
And while all this happens so quickly around the world, so many of us will never know where the clothes we wear actually came from.
Look down at what you’re wearing right now.
Do you know who made it?
Don’t worry. You’re not alone.
Even the store you purchased your bargain shirt from doesn’t know.
When the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh on April 24th last year, I didn’t put much though into it. Of course, I was upset about the people who died and were affected by it, but it never really hit home that this was a massive problem.
It took watching the Guardian’s Rana Plaza interactive documentary titled The Shirt On Your Back for me to fully understand the repercussions of this collapse – the largest and most devastating industrial disaster to ever occur.
Over 1,130 workers were killed.
Many suffered life-long mental and physical injuries.
Some families never found the bodies of their loved ones.
Rana Plaza took just 90 seconds to collapse.
This was an illegally run and poorly built factory involved in modern-day slavery. The workers employed at Rana Plaza received bad pay and were heavily mistreated by their employers – most of the mistreatment was suffered by underage female workers. The factory reeked of corruption, abuse and neglect. The workers were deceived and told the factory was safe, and on the day of the collapse, were told to come to work as normal.
Watching the documentary brought me to tears. For too long, I’ve been a consumer of ‘fast-fashion’ – buying cheap, bargain clothing that has allowed me to keep my wardrobe up-to-date without breaking the bank.
I’m a sucker for Primark. I know many others are too, whether you admit it or not. I’d heard about the sweatshops, but I never really thought about what was going on behind-the-scenes. It never occurred to me that the pair of jeans I purchased for £7-10 could cost someone else their life. I never thought that a t-shirt I’d buy would profit the Western retailer but not give anything to the person sitting in a factory who spent hours making it. Now it haunts me that I could buy a cheap piece of clothing just so I could look good, while someone in Bangladesh suffered to make it, and was still suffering while they made more for me.
What we don’t think about when shopping is that the garment industry is lacking in ethics, and especially in countries such as Bangladesh, India and China, where human rights abuses are occurring day in, day out. While we very quickly step into a large clothing retailer, scan, browse and make our purchases, Western companies are ruling the roost and international supply chains (the people/organisations who move the product from suppliers to customers) are allowing them to get away scotch-free when it comes to helping those who are making their clothes for them.
As long as the rich get richer, there is no issue here.
So, what’s happened since the collapse of Rana Plaza?
1. Workers are still campaigning for better pay, safer working conditions, an end to 14-hour work days and benefits such as on-site child care and maternity leave.
2. There has been a 77% increase in Bangladesh’s minimum wage, but many workers are still struggling to survive on 5,300 taka – that’s £41 a month to you and I.
3. Only around £9m worth of compensation has been given to the International Labour Organisation-backed compensation fund. The target is £24m.
4. Brands such as Primark may have owned up to being linked to Rana Plaza, but another 28 have remained silent and not coughed up any compensation money. In fact, after the collapse of the factory, ‘fast-fashion’ retailers saw an increase in profits.
This is of course, absolutely awful. You’d expect that so much death and destruction would bring massive changes in Bangladesh and other such countries where slave-labour like this is taking place. You’d think they’d quiver in their boots and would start making the changes need. You’d think supply chains had a sense of morality.
You think wrong.
I believe that as consumers, we have a right to know where our items of clothing are coming from, and that we should take tragedies like Rana Plaza to change how we think about fashion. Rather than always being excited about getting a new item of clothing, we need to become quizzical about why a t-shirt is priced at £4, and what this means for the person in a third-world country who made it.
Since researching about Rana Plaza, I’ve decided to quit Primark and Matalan and not buy any clothing from them again. It’s a personal decision – I’m unsure where they’re getting their clothes from and whether they’re being honest about how involved they are in protecting their factory-workers. I’ve become a little paranoid, and I’m in doubt about a lot of clothing retailers now and whether or not I am contributing to both someone’s loss (the abuse, corruption and neglect suffered) or gain (the wage they earn and take back home, albeit a below minimum one). It’s hugely unsettling to now go into a store and buy cheap things at a ‘bargain’ price – what is a bargain compared to someone’s life?
Everyone can start to change their views on fashion. Here’s a few things I think we as consumers could do to show our support and take a stand against the corruption concealed from us:
1. Buy with a conscience.
2. Change your attitude to fashion: Look at things in the bigger picture. Don’t open up your wardrobes and drawers and say ‘I need more clothes’ when you clearly don’t.
3. Pay more for your clothing, and shop half as much: I read an article informing how in a recent poll by YouGov and the Global Poverty Project, 74% said they’d be likely to pay 5% extra for clothes if there was a guarantee that workers were being paid fairly and worked in safe conditions. I know I’d happily do this, so the aim is quite simple really – have fewer items of clothing, but of better quality.
4. Read the price tag: do your own research. Go online and check the policies of your favourite retailers to see how ethical they are. Get educated.
5. Buy from charity shops: vintage items of clothing are around to stay. Charity shops are fantastic for this and are overall, swell places. They often have really nice items of clothing for a good price – and there’s the added bonus that your money is going towards a good cause and not boosting the profit of a Western retailer, who will charge you 5x more than what they pay a factory worker. Let your pride/shame/embarrassment go and visit one. Have a snoop around, you never know what you could find.
6. Take part in Fashion Revolution Day: there is a lot you can do on this day, which was first held this year on 24th April 2014, a year after the Rana Plaza factory disaster. Many people wore their clothes inside out to reveal their label, and asked fashion retailers ‘who made your clothes?’. This campaign for sustainable fashion is still new in its origins, but if more of us join, I’m positive that we can start to gain answers. Click here to see how you can get involved.
We have a right to start asking questions and becoming more aware of the line of production. I hope that others reading this post may start to think more about fashion, fashion retailers and the price we’re willing to pay.
I can no longer step inside such stores and feel good about myself or the world in general, so will gladly leave them to start making the appropriate changes. How long this will take, I don’t know, but I think the above steps can start to make small changes in attitude and buying habits.
Fashion retailers need to start asking their own questions to corrupt and secretive supply chains and must find out where this clothing is coming from. Proper inspections in factories are needed, workers need to be paid correctly and must be empowered rather than mistreated and neglected.
Rana Plaza cannot happen again. As consumers, we can all begin to help in some way.
Additional note: on Monday 21st July (tomorrow!), BBC Two are airing a documentary on the Rana Plaza collapse titled Clothes To Die For. I urge everyone to watch it, learn about the incident in more depth and also, watch the Guardian’s The Shirt On Your Back documentary too.