Most people do not pay much attention to how or where their clothes are made. Instead, when making purchase decisions, consumers look at styling, fit, and price but rarely delve into the codes of conduct or factory auditing processes of their favorite fashion brands. However, if you are interested in understanding how and where your clothing is made, I would highly recommend watching two recent documentaries, Clothes to Die For and The True Cost.
Both of these films were inspired by the April 24, 2013 tragedy of the collapse of Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh (outside of Dhaka) which housed several apparel factories. Over 1,100 people were killed and over 2,400 injured in one of the worst industrial disasters of our time. Prior to its collapse, building owners had been informed of cracks in a structural pillar and in the ceiling of the building. In fact, the day before the collapse, an engineer deemed the building unsafe. Despite these warnings, the building owner, Sohel Rana, assured factory owners that the building was safe and factory employees were urged to return to work. The tragedy brought the world’s attention to the unsafe factory conditions and corruption within Bangladesh government. Through dramatic media coverage during the days following the collapse, we watched in horror as the extent of the tragedy unfolded. Consumers were shocked to see their favorite brands identified as being made in one of the clothing factories housed in the building; brands including Inditex (Zara), Mango, The Children’s Place, Walmart, and JCPenney, just to name a few.
Clothes to Die For focuses on the causes and personal impact of the tragedy itself. Beginning with the history of Bangladesh garment industry as a means for economic development for the country, we see the tremendous growth in the garment industry as low wage production center primarily for budget priced merchandise. The industry provided income and hope for many, particularly women, who would not have had an income otherwise. It then follows the events leading up to the tragedy. The most powerful aspect of the film is the heart-wrenching interviews with workers who survived the ordeal – telling their stories of survival, faith, and gratitude towards the volunteers who saved them.
Taking a broader approach to social responsibility in the fashion industry, The True Cost explores the impact of consumers’ desire for every-changing styles, low prices and fast fashion; and the industry’s use of contract factories in low-wage production centers such as those in Bangladesh to meet consumers’ desire for low cost apparel. Andrew Morgan, Director of The True Cost, describes the film as “an eye opening journey around the world and into the lives of the many people and places behind our clothes.” And asks the question “who really pays the price for our clothing?”
After watching the films, some may ask – “has anything happened since the tragedy?” Although consumers’ desire for fast fashion has not waned, the tragedy was a dramatic wake-up call for many fashion brands wanting to avoid the risk of negative publicity by addressing working conditions in their factories. Since the tragedy, two industry alliances have been formed: The Bangladesh Safety Accord (The Accord) has been signed by over 70 companies in 15 countries including H&M, Inditex (Zara), PVH, Carrefour, and Tesco. The Accord is governed by companies and worker representatives with a focus on independent inspections and remediation plans. The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (The Alliance) has been signed by over 25 North American apparel companies and retailers including Children’s Place, Costco, Gap, JCPenney, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Target, VF, and Wal-Mart. The Alliance conducts safety assessments of apparel factories as a means of improving conditions. These groups have had mixed results and challenges still exist – early on the morning of February 2, 2016 a large fire broke out in a sweater factory making merchandise for brands including H&M and JCPenney. Reports indicated 10-15 people were injured. Despite these challenges, imports from Bangladesh to the US of fashion apparel continue to grow. Bangladesh is now ranks as the 3rd largest exporter to the US for apparel behind China and Vietnam.
What can you do to help? The websites of both films offer excellent ways for you to be engaged in efforts to make a difference in cleaning up the apparel industry! And as I wrote about in my earlier blog -be an animateur and lead change through inspiring others! The cost of fashion should not include the health, well-being, and lives of the workers!