Let's go back two years. I was still trying to figure out my move away from teaching, blogging to help myself through the process. On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza catastrophe occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh. That day, 1,133 people died and 2,500 were injured as they worked to make clothing for brands in Western countries, including the US.
The companies that commissioned the work would claim that they did not know about the conditions of Rana Plaza. The day before, large cracks spanning several floors had been discovered along the walls, prompting bosses to send their workers home for half the day. A local engineer examined the structure and recommended closure and an expert inspection. Despite the recommendation, Rana was open the very next day and by noon it had collapsed with thousands inside.
In the wake of the collapse, many brands would deny that they had been using the factory, only to be exposed by a group of dedicated activists in Bangladesh. Tags from companies were unearthed and exhibited as proof while organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign did their part to expose corporate ties to the factory. The fact is those in charge may not have known about the conditions of the the factories they employed thanks to the labyrinthine structure of supply chains in the fashion industry. But if these companies don't know where their products are made, how could I ever know if my purchases were part of the problem?
See which companies still need to pay up.
Shocked by images of the collapse, I decided then that I would not knowingly contribute to the violence and death attached to fast fashion. Investigation was my eulogy to the victims, education my mea culpa. This blog became my way to break down these issues and share what I learn. Ethical fashion was the easy way in, my gateway drug if you will, to activism, minimalism, and anti-capitalism. Clothing is personal and it feels feasible to stop buying items that harm others in their making. Even to stop buying clothing at all seems possible compared to the complex challenges of the entire industry. But are ignorant consumers like me to blame for fast fashion?
Corporations, fashion or otherwise, like to scapegoat the consumer. Their excuse is "consumer desire". Their mantra: if consumers don't buy it, we won't make it. This excuse belies the power they wield since the truth is more like, if they didn't make it, we couldn't buy it. Moreover, where is the virtue in producing fast fashion only to have it sit on the shelves?
But despite being characterized as "people," corporations don't have consciences and capitalism expects profits to increase year after year. In her introduction to This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein breaks down the reasons there has been no real movement to address climate change, and her conclusion could just as easily apply to the ills of the fashion industry. She writes, "We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets."
When actually confronted with conscious consumerism, the excuse shifts to one of concern for the tenuous employment of the (mostly women) workers of the world's garment industry. In response to the idea of reducing consumption, Karl-Johan Persson, the chief executive of H&M sermonized, "if we were to decrease 10% to 20% of everything we don’t need, the result on the social and economic side would be catastrophic, including a lot of lost jobs and poverty." Important to note is the operating profit of H&M in 2014 was 3.4 billion dollars. H&M sells approximately 600 million articles per year, sourced from around 750 suppliers, 60 per cent of which are in Asia. Were capitalism not Persson's dogma, H&M could reduce the number of items made, increase the wages of employees, and likely still make a profit (albeit not as much).
Fast fashion is a relatively new phenomenon. While it is true that the garment industry in Bangladesh has provided, women in particular, employment and a means for household income, it has also created a desperate environment where workers remain in crumbling buildings for fear of losing their jobs. Poverty existed before fast fashion, it exists now, and it will likely exist when fast fashion has met its eventual end; more consumption is the solution to poverty as much as tissues are the cure for a cold. That which has always existed cannot be solved by shopping.
In an op-ed for the BF+DA, Elizabeth Cline wrote, "Fast fashion is part of a wider ideological degradation, whereby we think of ourselves and identify in every way as 'consumers,' to the point that we use consumption as our primary form of protest, by consuming 'responsibly.' The problem with conscious consumption as the end all and be all of resistance is that it is a symptom of our over-identification with the marketplace and, more importantly, it indicates just how much we’ve lost site of the fact that social change happens primarily OUTSIDE of the marketplace, in the realm of government, law, policy, and activism."
The truth about our consumption is writ large. The rise of fast fashion parallels growing global inequality and degradation of our planet. Capitalism is a strain on the earth's resources, and deems both the environment and people to be as disposable as your $10 denim. The average American throws away over 68 pounds of textiles per year. Landfills and secondhand markets are taxed under this glut of used clothing, another consequence of unfettered consumerism. A revolution is certainly in order.
Friday is the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse as well as the second Fashion Revolution Day. "Fashion Revolution sees the Rana Plaza disaster as a metaphorical call to arms, and Fashion Revolution Day, to be held annually on the 24th of April, will keep the most vulnerable in the supply chain in the public eye." There are now over 65 countries worldwide taking part in Fashion Revolution (#FashRev). On April 24th, join the movement by turning your clothes inside out and connecting with the brands and people who made your clothes. If you can't find this information, use social media and demand to know #whomademyclothes.
But don't stop there.
We are more than consumers; we are citizens. Be curious, ask questions, and fight for change. Here's what you can do:
- Lobby for better regulation of the garment industry and supply chain standards.
- Sign this petition for more transparency in online retail.
- Vote for minimum wage increases.
- Speak out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
- Agitate corporations and don't let their transgressions be forgotten.
- Support activist organizations and labor unions: