By now you would have heard of the terrible tragedy that unfolded at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh last month when a garment factory warehouse collapsed killing hundreds of workers and injuring scores of others. Rescue efforts continued for three weeks, until sadly, the confirmed death toll reached 1,100. While this tragedy was the tipping point in many ways, unfortunately it is not a sole occurrence, and yet it keeps happening time and time again. All in the name of cheap fashion.
Factories like these are used by many of the popular high street clothing companies to pump out the demand for fast and cheap fashion. Indeed, cheap fashion comes with a hidden trade-off for human rights and the environment.
Bangladesh is the world’s second largest clothing producer, accounting for 80 percent of the country’s annual exports at US$20 billion. There is one main reason why clothing companies produce in places like Bangladesh - they provide the competitive edge that China did 10 years ago with extremely low labour and production costs. With production and labour costs on the rise in China, companies are now heading to Bangladesh to keep their costs down. The average wage for a garment factory worker in Bangladesh is just $37.
What needs to be done? Such a complex issue that is, in fact, ingrained in how we shop that is not an easy one to address. The blame game is being played between big business demand and government regulation. For consumers, it’s not always easy to connect these issues of unethical and unfair production to what they wear. And to some extent, the market is designed so that we don’t. That is, until tragedy strikes.
At The PachaMama Project, our whole business model revolves around ethical sourcing, ending unfair wages and working conditions and providing opportunities for sustainable and fair incomes. We do not sell mass produced items. We sell sweatshop free handicrafts. But we recognise that big clothing companies have big demands to fill in a global economy, and therein lies part of the problem. So where does it end?
A few days ago four major global clothing brands signed an Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, to dramatically improve safety and working conditions for garment factory workers in the country. The Accord is a first of its kind, legally-binding stakeholder-drafted contract that calls for independent building inspections and mandatory works to address building hazards. It demands public disclosure of audit results and it gives rights to unionise workers and raise a minimum wage. This is clothing companies taking more responsibility for their supply chains. It is an historic achievement for fair and decent working conditions, but is it enough?
It’s a sticky issue, and not just for business. Many consumers are now asking how they can be sure that the clothes they buy are not produced in a sweatshop when so much of big clothing business is conducted in countries like Bangladesh and China. A complete boycott of products made in these countries is not necessarily a fair solution. There are around 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh, that is an estimated 4 million workers that rely on the meager wage they do earn to support themselves and their families. Buying Fair Trade and ethically sourced clothing and other personal items is one way to be sure that you’re contributing to fair and just working conditions and wages. Demand to know where your purchases are coming from, who made them, and how; if this information isn’t always readily available. Buying Fair Trade certified is a great way to do that but purchasing from ethical and sustainable brands that source from smaller producers is also a great way to shop with a clear conscience. Smaller producers working under Fair Trade principles can’t always afford the hefty certification expenses.
Think long-term about your purchases. Sustainable and ethical brands might be a tad more expensive than their cheaper counterparts but probably last you a lot longer too. So then it is not only is it cheaper in the long-term, but friendlier on the environment and it creates more sustainable market forces. The way we shop these days is geared around short-term trends and fast fashion, but we can all shop more consciously by buying less, buying ethical and sustainable, and wearing clothes longer.
Demand greater transparency by telling companies that unless they trade fair, they will lose out on your business has proved effective. You can do this you’re your voice and with your wallet. More than 1 million people have signed the petitions to stop unethical business in Bangladesh. You can join the call-out too by signing this petition by Avaaz.
Consumer pressure dictating market demands is one of the most effective ways to help ensure ethical treatment and fair wages for clothing producers worldwide.
Amidst the debate for fair trade and the outcry for justice and fair working conditions, one thing’s for sure; the tragedy in Bangladesh has been a turning point for business and consumer thinking alike. Our thoughts and condolences are with the families of the dead and injured. We just hope that someday soon there will be an end to the unethical clothing industry and that it doesn’t happen again.