FEATURED IMAGE: Fashion Revolution | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A graphic edited in the collage style; a grey hoodie edited onto a textured felt-like white background; the hoodie unzips to reveal a woman, wearing a mask, in front of a sewing machine in a garment factory
Eight years ago, the world witnessed the deadliest garment industry disaster in history. It was then that the Fashion Revolution movement officially began. This week is Fashion Revolution Week, a time where we come together as a global community to create a better fashion industry. Eight years since the disaster, has anything changed?
Remembering Rana Plaza
Eight years ago, in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, India, an eight-storey building collapsed. The building collapsed in less than 90 seconds and killed 1,134 people. These were garment workers—mostly young women—and they were making clothes sourced by major international brands, including Primark, Zara, Walmart, and Mango, among others. The list, even today, remains unclear. What is clear, though, is the fact that it was the most devastating garment industry disaster in history.
The worst part? It didn’t come as a surprise. In fact, garment workers were already anxious about the cracks in the building days and weeks prior to the collapse. (The building was later revealed to be built over unstable land, a filled-in pond, and the last three stories were illegally and poorly built). The day before the collapse, they were even evacuated for safety concerns. On the morning of the collapse, the garment workers begged not to be sent inside. The managers didn’t relent, and so they went to work. And it cost them their lives. But before we point fingers at the managers, it’s crucial to establish the context: a massive fashion industry, with an even bigger supply chain. An industry plagued with a lack of transparency and accountability, in which power is unevenly distributed: less and less as you go further down the supply chain. The garment workers have to go to work because the managers force them to. The managers force them to because industry buyers demand immediate fulfilment of orders, no matter the conditions.
Conditions that get worse and worse, because the industry wants things cheaper and cheaper. Who pays? These garment workers. As Anvita Srivastava writes for Fashion Revolution, there’s a “massive income disparity between the workers and the brands they produce for. To give you an idea at the time of the incident workers earned between 35 USD and 60 USD per month for a pair of jeans that cost less than 5 USD to produce and would sell for more than 80 USD globally. Their vulnerability and struggle for survival make them the disposable assets of the supply chain. In addition to that, the majority of the garment workers are young women, often victims of gender-based violence. Many of them financially support their families and fear of losing jobs is greater than the risk to their lives.”
The Rana Plaza disaster exposed, globally, for the first time, the horrors of the fashion industry. There was—and is—much to fix. From poor working conditions to unacceptably low pay, from complex supply chains to the invisibilisation of garment workers, from the exploitation of developing countries to the ignorance of consumers… so where did they start?
IMAGE: rijans | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse; a huge crowd of people (onlookers, family members, friends, rescue workers, etc.) gather outside and within the building
Brands and retailers had to act: public outrage was strong and international. And act they did: over 50 international brands and retailers agreed upon a five-year commitment to invest in safer factories. The commitment was known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (visualised here). It represented a commitment to better workplaces and included inspections and reporting, repairs and renovations, and a central role for workers and unions. The Accord is, as Srivastava notes, “the first modern legally binding agreement between global brands and retailers and trade unions that represent garment workers”. It was a departure from the past, in which change was dependent on voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives. So it wasn’t perfect, certainly not entirely comprehensive, but it was a start—and it mattered.
Since then, as Emily Chan details for Vogue, “more than 38,000 inspections have taken place at more than 1,600 factories, covering two million workers—with over 120,000 fire, building, and electrical hazards fixed during that time.” Building safety, at least in Bangladesh, has hugely improved. But fires still happen, and much work needs to be done. This is why when the 2013 Accord expired in 2018, activists continued to push for progress, achieving a renewed agreement in 2018: the 2018 Transition Accord. This Transition Accord, however, expires in May this year. So there are urgent calls by activists to renew it. Srivastava points out: “If the Accord is not renewed, the safety of over 2 million workers in 1,600 garment factories will [once again] be left in the hands of voluntary, non-enforceable Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, which have been unable to prevent mass casualties.”
Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest alliance of labour unions and NGOs, is calling for the industry to #ProtectProgress. “The Bangladesh Accord is so successful,” they highlight, “because it is a binding agreement that has real punishments for brands, retailers, and factories that do not take enough action. Unions take up half of the seats in the Accord’s governance structures and can hold brands accountable.” But while protecting progress is important, the Accord has its limits.
For one, as Fashion Revolution highlights in their 2020 White Paper, the government and garment factory owners in Bangladesh continue to crack down on garment workers who try to resist, organise and fight. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, “millions of workers in Bangladesh and around the world still face poverty, danger and even death while making the clothes we buy. In other words, business-as-usual continues.”
Case in point: COVID-19
The scale of the problem has been made clear, (no) thanks to the global pandemic. Major fashion brands cancelled their orders, without payment, leaving amounts owed to garment workers, especially in South and Southeast Asia, in the billions. Because of these cancellations, factories have had to shut down. Garment workers were laid off—and of course, without adequate compensation. Unsurprisingly, such conditions have pushed many garment workers (even further in) to poverty. Even without shutdowns, lockdown conditions alone can make this worse too. The World Bank estimates that these lockdowns can push an additional 88–115 million people into extreme poverty in 2020. The total could rise to as many as 150 million by the end of 2021—“depending on the severity of the economic contraction in developing regions including those that rely on garment exports.”
Shockingly, a study by the Worker Rights Consortium found that 80% of workers have been going hungry, with those laid off reporting that they’ve been unable to find work for the past year. As Dr Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, editor of Labor, Global Supply Chains, and the Garment Industry in South Asia: Bangladesh After Rana Plaza explains: “COVID-19 has led to extreme hardship—workers don’t get paid enough to actually save anything. They’re living hand-to-mouth. There’s a whole set of things that haven’t changed [since Rana Plaza]—everyday harassment, gender-based violence, the lack of any social protection, the issue of low wages.”
“It’s become a question of, ‘Do I not feed my family, or do I take a risk and catch COVID-19? I have to feed the family.’” The dilemma that these garment workers face during the pandemic chillingly mirrors the dilemma the garment workers faced eight years ago at Rana Plaza. Have things changed at all for these garment workers at the end of global supply chains, the ones with the most economic vulnerability?
Nobody is paid a living wage
From the point of view of how much they earn, it is true that not much has changed. As Clean Clothes Campaign shares on their website, even though the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights states “the role and responsibilities of businesses to respect the human right to fair wages”, a role that “exists independently of States’ abilities and/or willingness to fulfil their own human rights obligations”, their ongoing research shows that “no major brand can prove all worker’s in their supply chain earn a living wage. The same holds for fast fashion, luxury brands or worker apparel alike.” This means that no matter how expensive that item of clothing is, garment workers aren’t paid enough to live well enough to make it. As in, it’s not sustainable for the garment workers.
In fact, according to Tailored Wages 2019, wages paid on average are 2–5 times less than the amount a worker and her family need to live with dignity. And what is a living wage? According to Clean Clothes Campaign, such a wage, as in accordance with the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, is always a family wage. Half of that salary would go to food, 40% to clothing, housing, travel costs, children’s education and health costs, and 10% goes to discretionary income: entertainment, savings, pension, or if the household’s main earner loses their job. Crucially, a living wage must allow for savings, without which “workers remain in a vulnerable situation, are not able to make mid-and long-term plans in their lives and are at risk of ending up in debt when additional unforeseen financial expenditure is needed.”
And at best, the living wage implemented is at a regional level, preventing wage competition between countries. Wage competition that is part of the reason why we’re in this race-to-the-bottom culture of cut-throat costs in the fashion industry, to begin with.
On the other side of the world…
thin ppl on tik tok doing $900 shein hauls like……..why lmfao if you can afford to spend $900 on shein you could just buy better quality clothing
— dash is watching breaking bad (s3) • they/them (@thedigitaldash_) April 13, 2021
On the other side of the world, we’re seeing the rise of ultra-fast fashion. Certainly, this is the worst of our modern culture of consumption (and we’ll get to the good parts later), but it must be highlighted. Hauls have always been a thing, of course. (Bonus points if you’ve been around since the 2013–2014 era of YouTube when Primark, H&M, Zara (etc.) hauls were popular). But apparently, $900 Shein hauls have been trending on TikTok, and you can only imagine the comment sections filled with comments along the lines of “obsessed with it all brb going to buy it” and “try on haul NOW”. Now, we’ve said it before, but it bears repeating that these affordable (fast) fashion options keep clothing affordable for poorer consumers, and sometimes are the only options for plus-sized consumers. (In saying this, though, we also need better, ethical options for everybody.) But in truth, as these massive $900 hauls make clear, it’s those who are privileged enough to afford better aren’t buying better.
This is an entire topic in itself, but we can’t discuss this without highlighting the fact that we’re trapped in a consumeristic culture. This doesn’t mean individuals are not responsible. Instead, it means that the industry is certainly profiting off, and enabling, this vicious cycle of consumption. “The rise of influencer culture and marketing has opened up a niche for fast fashion brands, specifically online retailers,” as Terry Nguyen writes for Vox, “to flourish. Thanks to social media’s constantly changing, visually-driven nature, brands have developed a symbiotic relationship with popular celebrities and influencers, like the Kardashians, who have the ability to turn whatever they wear into an instant trend. These influencers, in turn, drive the fast fashion economy and affect how normal people think about their own clothing choices.”
Again, this is not to say that we’re—privileged consumers—not absolved from our consumption habits. But to say that there are structural, systemic reasons why the culture of consumption is so prevalent, so persisting.
There are reasons to celebrate
It’s not all doom and gloom—indeed, as demonstrated in the recent H&M fiasco, there’s much to celebrate, as far as consumers are concerned. If you didn’t hear about it, here’s the TLDR: H&M’s appointed celebrity Maisie Williams as their newest sustainability ambassador. Consumers, who now know better, were outraged at H&M’s blatant greenwashing, and so the campaign backfired.
In response, H&M made this incredulous statement to The Independent: “Sustainability is at the core of everything we do, which is clearly reflected by the appointment of our former Head of Global Sustainability, Helena Helmersson, as our CEO. Globally, we have over 250 people working solely in sustainability roles across all aspects of our business, ensuring that sustainability is always our top priority. ‘Greenwashing’ is broadly defined as the spreading of misinformation by a company to make themselves appear more sustainable – this is the opposite of what we do at H&M. The size and scale of our business operations is often conflated with our sustainability developments, but the truth is that these are two separate matters.”
Which of course, as you can imagine, hasn’t been received very well either. Thanks to the work of fashion journalists, activists, and countless other organisations over the years, consumer awareness has grown considerably. As fashion journalist Aja Barber commented about the fiasco: “the push back [H&M] received […] made me proud. Five years ago we all would have gone ‘oh this is grand’, today we’re like ‘oh hell no'”. Now, the audacity of huge corporations like H&M to unabashedly lie is not something to be celebrated, but we can celebrate the growing pushback from increasingly discerning consumers. And it’s certainly growing.
In January 2019, Business of Fashion reported that: “Fashion companies must come to terms with the fact that a more distrusting consumer expects full transparency across the value chain. Given the need to regain that trust, fashion players cannot afford not to examine long-standing practices across their businesses… consumers have become more active in scrutinising the brands they do business with.”
Has sustainability become the norm?
As the Fashion Revolution 2020 White Paper notes, this seems to be the case. “Sustainability is no longer a fringe issue within fashion,” declared fashion and culture magazine AnOther in December 2019, “but the most defining challenge – and opportunity – of our time.” Recent research from McKinsey & Company in 2019 backs this up with the numbers: online searches for “sustainable fashion” tripled between 2016 and 2019. Business of Fashion wrote in 2019 that consumers are increasingly concerned about fair labour, sustainable sourcing and the environment. Further, they “want to support brands that are doing good in the world, with 66% willing to pay more for sustainable goods.”
Fashion Revolution’s 2020 Consumer Survey of 5,000 people aged 16–75 in the 5 largest European markets found that it’s true, “[c]onsumers are calling on fashion brands and governments to ensure transparency and respect for human rights and the environment along supply chains.” Sustainability matters, and it’s not just environmental sustainability that counts to consumers these days. And the growing consumer awareness has been matched with industry shifts too. According to Fashion Revolution Singapore’s 2021 Fashion Sustainability Report, the industry has been catching up. “The Pulse Report illustrated that the fashion industry has indeed improved its performance since 2018 with regards to social and environmental issues”, and the “Higg Index (standardi[s]ing tool measuring social and environmental impacts of manufacturers) has also revealed some positive trends; there has been a year-on-year increase of 15-19% in companies implementing sustainability measures.”
According to the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report, “61% of the 130 assessed companies (480 global brands) have devised policies addressing gender inequalities in supply chains, and 45% aim to improve working conditions in their factories by enhancing responsible buying practices. Furthermore, 35% of the companies are addressing child or forced labor if it is found in their supply chain, and 35% also have comprehensive Manufacturing Restrictive Substance Lists which seek to ensure that workers are not exposed to hazardous materials or chemicals.” Leading the way, of course, are small ethical brands (too many to name), alongside more famous ones like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher.
Are we seeing a fashion revolution?
Fashion Revolution Singapore’s 2021 Fashion Sustainability Report presents a holistic view of global efforts. And it sure is promising. For starters, we’ve seen transnational agreements and government efforts: from Global Fashion Agenda’s 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment (with 12.5% of the global fashion market signed on as of 2018) to the 2018 Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action under United N Climate Change (with signatories including 43 industry leaders from Burberry to H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., Puma, Hugo Boss and Gap, among others, all seeking to cut their emissions by 30% by 2030). We’re also seeing governments recognise that sustainable fashion is important: from China to India, France to the UK. Facilitating these efforts are also NGOs on the ground, such as Redress, International Labor Organization, Worker Rights Consortium, Ellen McArthur Foundation, and many more. But of course, to return to the ground: “Amidst buzzwords, grand movements, glitz and glamour, it is easy to overlook the most meaningful contributors to sustainable fashion: the consumers.”
Fashion Revolution’s 2020 White Paper highlighted that in October 2019, Morgan Stanley reported that the apparel industry is facing a “structural decline”. Consumers are buying less, at least in Western markets, for a number of reasons. Because they’ve reached “peak consumption”, and because they’re more aware of the environmental damage of the industry. Accordingly, because of these trends, “the world’s leading dozen listed apparel brands and retailers have, on average, seen earnings decrease nearly 40% since the beginning of 2016.” Not to mention, brick-and-mortar stores “have seen huge losses in the past few years as more shopping happens online. Nearly every week there seems to be news of another long-standing retailer going bankrupt and shutting their doors. Entire shopping malls have been left desolate.”
Consumers are turning to alternative clothing consumption: reuse, rental and swapping. And these alternative markets are growing, as malls everywhere face ever-dwindling crowds. But is there really a fashion revolution going on?
IMAGE: Fashion Revolution | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of the aftermath of a fire in a garment factory in Cairo, Egypt, in March 2021, with the words “The people who make our clothes are still not safe at work” edited over the image in a collage style
The global fashion industry is still growing: between 3.5–4.5% year-on-year, according to the Business of Fashion in 2019. As Fashion Revolution Singapore notes: in 2015, the industry outweighed the carbon footprint of international flights and maritime shipping combined. And it’s been estimated that the industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions. The industry’s waste problem creates over 92 million tons of waste yearly. It accounts for 20–35% of microplastic flows ending in the ocean. And it goes through 79 trillion litres of water every year to produce cotton and other textiles. We haven’t even talked about the chemicals used in processing that harms the environment, biodiversity, and ultimately, human health.
And, as has been made clear with the pandemic situation: “Whilst transparency, regulations, auditing, certification systems and laws against modern slavery are gaining traction, human rights abuses continue to persist.” Most of these abuses are borne by women since most of the garment workers around the world are women. “Forced and child labor, excessively long working hours, low pay, repression of trade unions, lack of job security, gender/race-based discrimination, and dangerous working conditions still characteri[s]e garment manufacturing.”
While this is happening, ultra-fast fashion players, as Fashion Revolution notes, “are forgoing bricks-and-mortar locations to get products from concept-to-sale online within weeks. This pace is not only remarkable but also totally unsustainable and often highly exploitative of the people working in their supply chains.” As it stands: “The global fashion industry, like the rest of our economy, has been designed to value profit and growth above all else. In fact, in many countries, companies are actually required by law to ensure shareholder value is prioritised first, no matter the consequences for workers, communities and the environment.”
All this is to say that…
… the future of sustainable revolution cannot solely be a revolution amongst privileged consumers. Privileged consumers can bring about change: the #PayUp campaign is a good example of that. Through this online campaign led by Remake, we’ve seen major brands and retailers pressured into paying on time and in full for orders during the pandemic (to the tune of $15 billion of an estimated $40 billion of unpaid orders). Which they initially weren’t going to pay. And certainly, much of the reason why the industry cares so much now is because of the voices of consumers, amplified by the already-existing and growing movement.
What we mean when we say it can’t solely be a revolution amongst privileged consumers is this: we’re not looking for green, or ethical capitalism. We’re looking for a world in which these exploitative conditions don’t co-exist with fashion. If it’s a win about buying, then it is not a win at all, especially if the people we are fighting for—and with—are nowhere closer to where they should be. We must be bolder in our demands. We cannot just be demanding for better options, we must be demanding for better conditions for those who make our clothes.
Luckily, Fashion Revolution’s theory of change is a systemic one. They’re after three levels of change. The first: cultural change. Which is about “changing consumer mindsets and creating new cultural narratives”, to get “people to recognise that what is stylish and desirable is also what protects human rights and our living planet.” The second: industry change. “Big brands have the resources, marketing power and moral responsibility to” make change, and the global movement can pressure them into doing so. How? By “publicly highlighting where the industry is moving too slowly, by incentivising the industry to do more and move faster, and by celebrating progress.” And finally: policy change, via “activating citizens to lobby their elected officials” by meeting with policymakers and “providing evidence-based research”.
The fight for a fashion revolution, a real one, won’t be easy. But we’re definitely headed in the right direction. It’s been eight years since the worst garment industry disaster in history, and change is happening. And if we remember who we’re fighting with and what we’re fighting for, we most certainly can get there.