It's Been 5 Years Since The Rana Plaza Tragedy
Where were you on April 24, 2013? To most people, it was a day like any other, but for me, it was the day that my eyes snapped wide open to the actions of my closet. No, my closet can’t walk or talk, but if it could, it may have given voice to the hidden women and men who made my clothes. On that day and the weeks to follow, those same faces came at me from the pages of the New York Times, the Guardian, and more covering the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse in Bangladesh.
Why this hit me so hard
For many members of the conscious fashion movement, this was also their wake-up moment. But at the time, I was working for a media company that covered global development issues, from foreign aid flows that support social and economic growth to the role of corporations through their responsibility, citizenship, or emerging markets activities.
Everywhere I turned, large multinational companies were - despite many people’s cynicism - doing amazing things. The most world’s most famous beverage company was innovating delivery of immunizations and medicine to the last miles of the most remote areas of our globe. Banks were investing in local innovators who were changing their communities through making the internet accessible for all. Payment providers were creating new gateways and currencies like mPESA that would come to revolutionize the way people - particularly women - in Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond would build savings and make everyday transactions that led to empowerment.
But where was the apparel industry? At the time, brands were either way behind the curve or not even filling a seat at the table. And what we’ve come to know so well as the fallout of fast fashion - poor treatment of factory workers, use of toxic dyes and other issues - were simply coming from C-Suite decisions to provide a lower cost of goods to Western consumers.
The next time I went shopping...
I saw tags that said "Made in Bangladesh" on about one out of every three pieces of clothing I picked up. So I bought nothing. The next time, I also bought nothing. And so on, until I resolved myself to shop ethically for a year and see what happened. And guess what? I couldn’t do it. It was just too challenging to decode all of the certifications, assess whether fair trade or organic was better if I was forced to make the choice, identify options in my price range as a 20-something working on a degree, and find clothing that fit my style needs as a professional living in Washington, DC.
This is not some conspiracy by big business. Businesses have always and will always need to make money to, at a minimum, keep their lights on. And in order to do that, they must make more sales. To make more sales, they lower prices. Why? Because we - the consumers - asked for it.
Living as an authentic feminist
When I step back and remove the feelings of guilt that creep in, and instead take a moment to envision the person who made my clothes, I see a woman. In fact, the International Labor Organization reports that women make up nearly 90 percent of garment workers in certain countries.
As someone who was raised by incredibly strong women, constantly surrounds herself with female leaders, and believes that supporting one another is the only way we’ll ever achieve equality, shopping consciously for my clothing suddenly became necessary to my authenticity as a feminist.
I should be able to support a living wage and a safe work environment for a woman who is no different than my mother, my sister, my friend, even if her face is obscured by the global distance between us.
The Complications of Finding a Solution
Boycotting clothing made in countries like Bangladesh only collapses the local economy, driving that woman I envisioned into an even deeper cycle of poverty. And brands like those who sourced from Rana Plaza aren’t all bad. Cleaning up their supply chains is so much more complicated than we might imagine, and in fact, they offer up the largest potential to make change in the industry.
Transparency is one of their largest obstacles. If a company orders a t-shirt to be produced and needs the product to arrive to their store floors within a month, their supplier takes the order, realizes it needs more capacity to fulfill the order on time, and subcontracts it to another supplier who faces the same challenge. Suddenly, the brand has no visibility into exactly where their product is made, so how could they know whether the maker was paid a living wage or provided safety in her work environment?
And what if those t-shirts are supposed to be organic? Where are you going to find all that cotton? The cotton might be organic, but were the workers treated fairly in the harvesting? Will you have to ship the cotton from India to Mexico to be turned into thread and fabric, then ship it to Cambodia to be assembled until finally moving it to the US to be put on shelves? What about the carbon footprint generated by that path?
The more conscious we are, the more urgency we feel to do something. And it’s impossible to be perfect with our buying behavior. So, our solution must be: just do something.
Finding your “something”
My something is starting wearwell to empower women to be able to shop consciously more easily than ever before. My best friend’s something is to give up fast fashion. My mom’s something is to ask questions about each piece she buys. Another founder I know financially supports influential groups working to change regulation for a more sustainable apparel industry.
There’s no action too insignificant. In fact, psychological studies show that feeling guilty or like it’s just not enough doesn’t inspire us to change at all. Instead, it pulls us deeper into the same behavior.
So, the next time you go to make a purchase, instead of throwing up your hands in frustration or feeling guilty about what’s already in your closet, envision your sister, your mother, your friend, and the woman who made that piece of clothing for you. Ask yourself: how can you empower her today? Collectively, our questions and our buying power will make a change and one day, fashion will just be fashion with no need to ask questions.