‘Co-opting tragedies the fashionable way’

The recent tragedies in Bangladesh’s retail garment sector have provoked unsettling questions about the nature of fashion and an oppressive industry

Leah Borromeo London

Rana Plaza, or the Savar building collapse in Bangladesh left 1,129 dead and thousands more injured in what is being called the deadliest garment factory incident in history. Those who died — mostly workers — were putting together clothes for some of the world’s biggest retailers, who sell what we in the West call “fast fashion” — cheap, convenient and trendy apparel. Nothing essential or utilitarian, but something to fill a consumer hole. Tired of this week’s offering? Just wait for the next week’s line to make yourself feel better.

Rana Plaza has also turned into a fashion buzzword—not least in the sustainability and ethics circles. It’s even sparked off an event called Fashion Revolution Day, where ethical fashionistas wear their brands inside out, and hashtag the photographs on Twitter and Instagram.

Co-opting tragedies is tricky, whether it’s to leverage one’s politics or raise awareness. On the one hand, the news itself opens up an arena to foster wider discussions on issues that would otherwise not get airtime. On the flipside, there is the risk of reducing it to tokenism or gimmickry, thereby turning deep and real events into what hipsters call “a thing”.

After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, for instance, it didn’t take long for a major high street retailer to peddle charity handbags designed by actress Scarlett Johansson, or have reality show singers appear in photo shoots for quake victims, or for journalists like me to receive phone calls from aid agencies searching “for a celebrity amputee who isn’t Heather Mills”.

One of the most unfortunate aspects about the garment industry in Bangladesh is that it took a tragedy of such colossal proportions for the world to take notice. The Rana Plaza collapse loomed large in everyone’s conscience not only because of the sheer number of casualties, but also because of the powerful images that accompanied it. But there have been many other tragedies before, most notably the Tazreen factory fire which killed 121 people, mainly because the building they were working in had been locked to prevent them from stealing the garments.

These horrible events have once again brought into conflict workers’ plight and the demands of consumerism from the West. One of the more harrowing photos was of a young woman whose hands were amputated after the collapse of the factory she was working in. She survived, but now cannot work.

After a major tragedy, there is usually an outcry. The one following the Rana Plaza collapse was enhanced by the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh — a legally binding agreement that now covers one-third of the Bangladesh textile industry. Drafted by NGOs and labour unions, brands and retailers signed up to maintain minimum health and safety standards. 

But the textile industry is only one facet of the exploitation of workers. There is also the farming sector—where the cotton or the silk that makes the textiles comes from. When you consider that over 300,000 cotton farmers in India have committed suicide to escape debt in the past two decades, it seems all too clear that the blood of workers is one element that has never gone out of fashion.

The retail and design industries that promote and distribute these fashion accessories also have their fair share of unpaid or lowly interns and labourers at the bottom of the food chain. They are expected to put in as many working hours as unpaid or low-paid staff, in return for a glowing reference or perhaps a full-time job. Unlike the workers further down the chain, these ones come from the “developed” world and are expected to look presentable. They might not have money to eat, but are expected to be bedecked in the latest outfits. So here is where it comes full circle. Is the fashion industry devouring its own tail? What is being done about the working conditions of everyone along the fashion supply chain? What and how can change come from this?

Wearing garments inside out and hash-tagging it on social media will not spark a revolution. But it can’t hurt. Nor can making documentaries, like I did, aiming to unpack the entire supply chain, from seed to shop—including who makes the seed and what the industry might look like in 30 years. Nor can writing articles, or reworking old clothes to make them new again or looking into alternative material to make fabric out of. No one thing can force major corporations to open up their supply chains and be transparent about their business practices. Unless there’s a law that forces them to do so.

Laws are funny things. Nobody thinks of the need for one until people somewhere work out that they’ve had enough of one thing and need to legislate for or against it. Yet there are already brands and labels incorporating total supply chain transparency such as Bruno Pieters’s “Honest by”. Formerly Hugo Boss’s art director, Pieters now not only tells you what goes into the clothes he makes but also how much he earns off of each one. Established outdoor clothing brand Patagonia offers a suppliers’ map telling consumers the impact of each major company decision — positive or negative.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2013