Your Cheap Clothes Will Cost Lives With Future Rana Plaza Tragedies

19/06/2015 17:21 BST | Updated 19/06/2016 10:59 BST

On 23 April 2013, the Rana Plaza complex - an eight-story commercial building in Bangladesh - collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring 2,515.

It was the garment industry's worst-ever industrial accident. At least 29 global brands had recent or current orders at the complex.

This wasn't the first such accident and it is not the last. On 13 May this year 72 workers died at a slipper factory in the Philippines.

Such tragedies have now led to a European Community initiative to increase awareness of supply chain issues, gather support for more responsible management and provide for exchanges between businesses, NGOs, trade unions and institutions.

Legislative initiatives relating to transparency, mandatory due diligence and legal recourse are expected to follow.

The Rana Plaza complex catastrophe, in particular, has also led to the making of the recently released True Cost film, an exposé about exploited garment factory workers.

Slave labour existing to provide the developed world with cheap clothes is not a new revelation. What is new is that the Rana Plaza disaster finally removed the anonymity of the workers themselves. We saw their faces and it made visible the wretchedness of their existence.

Much has been made of what companies need to do in order to clean up their supply chains. And, in Europe, it appears this will now be legislated.

In launching my brand I chose to be ethical particularly in relation to working conditions. Some of this was driven by a personal moral stance, some of it was driven by having lived in Dubai.

I was a daily witness to the plight of construction workers and maids and their sorrowed expressions. On my first day, I was told by a colleague to 'shut your eyes to it, there's nothing you can do'.

I fear a similar attitude may be adopted by fashion consumers. They may close their eyes and choose to believe that ethical responsibility lies with the companies who sell to them. To some extent, they would be right. It is up to each company to eliminate bad working practice. That said, the answer is not as simplistic for all.

I have a small company. Personally I can check the source of every material we use. I can ensure that every factory is investigated and monitored for proper practice.

This is in contrast to global, fast fashion companies with multiple brands and enormous and complex supply chains. They have suppliers which have multiple sub-contractors. These multi-nationals are behemoths. They may aim to follow ethical procedure, but the implementation of change and full transformation is likely to be a long, difficult and costly road.

That is not to say they should be let off the hook. On the contrary.

What I would argue is that much of the change needs to be demand-driven. After all, where there is demand, supply will follow. That is the nature of business.

But in order for that to happen, one needs to understand how and what would drive changes in demand patterns.

Firstly, customers would need to become more accustomed to higher priced clothes. If companies are to pay living wages to garment manufacturers in developing countries then at least some of this cost, invariably, will be borne by the customer. Again that is the nature of business. Ethics does not come cheap.

Fast fashion demand is, to a large extent, driven by the value customer - those with limited disposable incomes. The likelihood of such customers opting for clothes that cost more to make and are therefore higher priced is low.

However, these customers could adjust their buying habits. For example, they could reduce or stop buying so many throwaway items. It has become commonplace to buy a very cheap item, wear it once and then discard it.

If customers better understood the differences in quality between cheap, low quality, throwaway items versus better quality and longer-lasting but higher-priced garments they may become more inclined to buy fewer but better clothes. And it may cost them no more.

In order for this to happen, I would argue that it is up to each brand to fully communicate and emphasise their quality standards and thresholds.

If value customers became more discerning in their choice and with regard to the amount of product they buy, then this itself would precipitate a step-change in the fast-fashion volume-driven industry. And such an approach could also be implemented across other customer segments.

In particular, a key driver of change could be in shopping habits of the mass affluent, e.g. the classic 'Waitrose shopper', where disposable income is higher and so more discretion can be exercised.

This demographic has transformed its food shopping habits in recent years with many opting to pay higher prices for organic and/or less traditionally conventional foods.

One could argue that such shoppers could extend these more selective shopping habits to include how they buy clothes.

The challenge here, however, is that ethical clothes do not provide a personal and immediate salubrious benefit in the same way as, say, organic food might. Customers need inducements.

One such inducement could result from perennial proactive awareness campaigns to reduce waste.

Numerous studies have revealed that women only wear around 15-20% of their wardrobe. This statistic could be set against the 350,000 tonnes of garments, worth around £140bn, which end up in UK landfills every year.

Such awareness campaigns could run concurrently to those addressing pollution concerns.

According to the Danish Fashion Institute fashion is the world's 2nd most polluting industry, second only to oil. The fashion industry's polluting factors are driven by 1) chemical production (25% of the world's chemicals are used for textile production) and 2) water contamination (the industry is second to agriculture in terms water pollution).

The problem is that old habits die hard. People need other incentives. One way to foster adoption would be through the support of celebrity co-operation. The influence of celebrity has risen sharply in recent years. A new book (The Road to Character) by New York Times columnist, David Brooks, discusses changing attitudes of self-perception.

He remarks that in 1976, young Americans ranked being famous 15th out of 16 possible life goals. By 2007 51% of young people said it was one of their principal ambitions. He also noted that in a recent multiple-choice quiz, nearly twice as many middle-school girls said they would rather be a celebrity's personal assistant than the president of Harvard University.

Such is the power and allure of celebrity.

The main hindrance to this approach, however, is that it has now become somewhat frowned upon for celebrities to be seen wearing the same piece of clothing twice. Magazines refer to celebrities being 'caught out' or 'recycling' outfits they have previously worn. The Duchess of Cambridge and Princess Royal have each been referred to as 'thrifty' for wearing an outfit more than once. This is in interesting contrast to the late Princess of Wales who was criticised for not repeating her outfits. Such have opinions and expectations changed.

Indeed such attitudes have filtered into standard practice with some people commenting on not wishing to be seen in Facebook photographs wearing clothes they have previously worn.

Perhaps what is needed is a social media campaign where people regularly promote images and instances of themselves with proud proclamations of the number of times the item(s) have previously been worn. Participants could simultaneously publish their images across all the social media platforms they use. Celebrity endorsement and participation would no doubt spur wide collaboration.

Perhaps this would lead to a greater acceptance of repeated wear of garments which would reduce demand for new clothing.

Separately high-end fashion designers, who ultimately establish trends that filter through to the high street, could encourage longer life cycles of those trends. This same message could be reinforced by the fashion press. The potential here is that it would result in clothes having recognised and endorsed longer shelf lives.

Coupled with more discretionary buying, the fashion industry, the environment and developing world labour conditions could be revolutionised.

And this could all happen against a background of customers pushing the companies they buy from for transparency in their working practices. Questions could be posed via social media from which today's brands cannot hide.

Ultimately, consumers can take control and become the driving force of transformational change.

This will require a new normal - a cultural shift in how we buy clothes.

It may be a long road, but it's attainable and fashion statements could transform not just your wardrobe, but your lifestyle choices, social conscience and real people's lives.