Do you remember what first prompted you to ask the question: who made my clothes?
For many people, it was seeing a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapse killing 1,138 people, men, women and children. This horrific incident occurred four years ago today.
For many of us, the Rana Plaza collapse became a turning point for our relationship with fashion. Suddenly, the clothes we wore began to feel and look different. The soft fabric against our skin became heavy, itchy, suffocating. And the cheap prices didn’t leave us feeling as gleeful after our H&M haul. Because while we watched limp, sooty figures being carried from the rubble, we were making a connection many of us had been denying; those face, bodies and distraught families were the stories woven into the clothes we wear.
All of a sudden we were asking the chilling question: who made my clothes?
When we bought those discounted jeans, who really paid the price for them?
The Rana Plaza collapse is one of the worst industrial disasters in history. But as the building came crashing down, so did structures that keep us from linking the human cost to the price of our garments. The collapse awakened many of us to the reality of cheap, fast fashion previously hidden behind plastic mannequins, fluorescent lighting and skinny models.
Rana Plaza has become the catalyst for a revolution. A fashion revolution.
The fashion supply chain is complex, murky and shrouded in a lack of transparency. It is wrought with secrecy, greed and exploitation. From the cutting room floor back to the sewing of the cotton seeds people, the environment and animals are mistreated and taken advantage of all in the name of fashion.
Forced labor of adults and children in Uzbek cotton fields, poisonous toxins in tanning yards, cancer from cotton pesticides in India and the millions of workers exploited at cheap wages working long hours; they are all the results of fast fashion. These are the people wearing the weight of our clothing on their shoulders. And most of this is happening out of sight and out of mind, hidden in the developing world.
The Rise of Fast Fashion
The rate at which we consume clothing has increased exponentially. A few decades ago we would buy one coat and wear it for 20 years. Today, it is not uncommon to buy an entirely new wardrobe every season. What we would’ve spent on that one jacket two decades ago, wearing it for several years, we now spend on several new items each season.
In the 1980s and '90s retailers shipped manufacturing offshore where wages were cheaper and labour laws could be exploited. Brands and companies have capitalized on this, pushing profit margins lower than ever before. A t-shirt can be made for as little as 50 cents and catwalk trends now hit stores within days. No longer does the fashion season consist of two collections per year. New collections hit stores weekly, and last month’s "old" stock receives hefty discounts.
This is now known as fast fashion.
The Push for a Revolution
Rana Plaza shook many of us out of our fast fashion daze. Suddenly it didn’t make sense that we would only buy free-range eggs because we couldn’t stand the thought of chickens suffering, but so easily ignore the suffering of those who made our clothes.
There were rumblings of a shift in consumer conscience in the '90s when Nike and the Gap were ousted for using child labor in sweatshops, but the conversation stalled somewhere in the mid-2000s as fast fashion brands increased in size and offering. Those fluorescent lights, plastic mannequins, and polyester dresses subdued many of us into a state of casual denial. When clothing is as cheap as a sandwich, you can buy whatever you like.
But what has emerged from Rana Plaza and the sustained conversation about fashion is a movement against this. A growing cohort of consumers who are behaving as citizens; people who are no longer satisfied with opaque supply chains, the unethical treatment of people and the pollution of our environment. More than ever before people want to know the dirty little secrets behind the brands and who they can buy from with a clear conscience.
So it’s great that there are now tools to help us navigate our way through the world of unethical fashion.
One of these tools is called the Good On You app. It rates brands based on their impact on people, the planet and animals. Over 1,000 brands are rated, giving people a snapshot of the brands who are making great efforts to protect their workers and those who need to clean up their act.
The app empowers people to take back the power. To vote with their dollars for the kind of world we want to live in. And companies will listen to consumers. Without our money, companies won’t exist.
Rana Plaza was a terrible tragedy and we don’t want to see another awful disaster like that unfold again. But it has brought to the fore an important conversation and encouraged global citizens to consume mindfully and apply pressure to brands to clean up their act.
So this Fashion Revolution Week, we encourage you to shelve the consumer mindset and re-engage with fashion as a citizen.
5 Ways to Become a Mindful Consumer
1. Ask your favourite brands #WhoMadeMyClothes?
2. Do your research with the Good On You app and discover ethical and sustainable brands.
3. Support brands who pay a living wage, employ strong environmental policies and care about everyone involved in their supply chains. A few of my favourites are Raven+Lily, Soko, Etiko, Reformation and StudyNY.
4. Avoid buying cheap clothing. A pair of jeans shouldn’t cost as much as a sandwich. If it’s too cheap then ask yourself, who’s paying the price?
5. Buy quality over quantity. Instead of buying several items at a cheap price, invest in one good piece you know you’ll wear regularly, love and will last the distance. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself: Will I wear this 30 times?
Fashion is an industry that has the potential to provide a livelihood for millions of people around the world. It’s time we expected our fashion to not only be well made, on-trend and stylish, but also kind to the people, planet and animals.