Will the Fashion Industry Ever Pay its Way? Three Years After the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse Hope Springs Eternal

Industry wide strategies aimed at improving labour laws are essential; only through freedom of association can the millions of voiceless individuals employed in this multi-billion dollar industry take a lasting stand against systemic injustices. There is an urgent need for both the industry and the public to hear this collective call to action.

On 24th April 2013 the world was shocked by the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,130 garment workers. It is a great tragedy that it took the loss of so many lives for the world to finally acknowledge the poor conditions endured by many of those making the cheap clothes worn and regularly discarded by western shoppers.

Earlier this week, Fashion Revolution held their 2nd annual Fashion Question Time at the Houses of Parliament to discuss what progress has been made to improve the plight of marginalized garment workers around the world.

The event, chaired by Mary Creagh MP, involved a panel of experts:

  • Antti Karhunsen, Head of Unit @EuropeAid
  • Livia Firth, Creative Director of Eco Age
  • Jenny Holdcroft, policy director of IndustriALL Global Union
  • Allanna McAspurn, CEO MADE-BY @AllannaMcAspurn
  • Mike Kane MP, Shadow Minister for International Development

It was attended by an invited audience of sustainability experts, NGO employees, and sustainable fashion campaigners.

Beginning the discussion, Desmond Swayne MP (Dept. for International Development) passionately extolled the value of employment and the role it plays in lifting people out of poverty. With the fashion industry being an engine of jobs, cleaning up its systematic failures and grotesque maltreatment of workers inevitably falls to those involved in the realm of International Development.

However, if, like me, you also find it shocking that around 21 million people are currently victims of forced labour (19 million of these are exploited by private individuals or enterprises) then yesterday's discussion proved you only need look to your wardrobe to help address this problem.

That's not to say customers should suddenly boycott big brands and avoid buying clothes made in Bangladesh, Cambodia or Ethiopia. All five panelists highlighted that the problems are far more complex than simply holding single companies accountable for the mucky business of making fashion.

The session followed that of the BBC's infamous format, with questions ranging from the implications of a Brexit vote to whether the government should enforce similar labeling laws to what we have on food. Out of much in-depth discussion one thing was made clear; industry wide problems need industry wide solutions. We need brands, retailers, NGO's, unions, producers and citizens all working together to create a better, more transparent fashion industry.

Industry wide strategies aimed at improving labour laws are essential; only through freedom of association can the millions of voiceless individuals employed in this multi-billion dollar industry take a lasting stand against systemic injustices. There is an urgent need for both the industry and the public to hear this collective call to action.

Changes since Rana Plaza: Companies are good at talking the talk, now they need to walk the walk

Both the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety were implemented with the aims of ensuring a safe and sustainable Bangladeshi Ready Made Garment industry. However, for Livia Firth "not much" change can be seen on the ground. The Accord and the Alliance have made "commendable efforts yet inspections have only taken place in half the factories" and has only left further question marks around who is required to pay for the necessary interventions that the inspections identify.

Firth's view is that brands have done a lot of cosmetic work publically, but they still have little idea about what is actually taking place on the ground. Sharing anecdotal evidence from garment workers in Bangladesh, she pointed out that wages may have risen to meet the guidelines set out by the Accord, yet so too have productivity demands. Targets that previously stood at 100 garments/hour have risen to 150 - 200 to cancel out the imposed wage inflation.

"For the industry as a whole, the accord and alliance has raised the awareness of what needs to be done, but the amount of actual change it has brought about is questionable" Livia Firth

Jenny Holdcroft spoke of the "uphill battle of the Accord, which has taken far longer to implement than it should have done." Many of the brands signed voluntarily (making it a legal obligation would have been an omission of their implication in the collapse, thus the accord relied heavily on mounting public pressure to garner the signatures from the brands implicated) yet the obligations remain legally binding. So now the work lies in evoking these obligations.

For Allanna McAspurn things had clearly improved from 15 years ago, with the last 5 seeing even greater momentum - "but we're only at the beginning and there is still so much to be done". Panelists agreed that the resistance to change is due to the fragmented nature of the supply chain and as a result requires unions, brands, national governments and supranational bodies to all take a share of the responsibility and act accordingly.

The entire industry needs to change and this is beyond the capacity of a single company, there needs to be structural and systemic changes on an industry-wide basis

Modern Slavery Act - is this just gesture politics?

Mike Kane MP spoke of how proud we should be over the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the first of its kind in Europe designed to combat slavery and human trafficking in the UK.

Yet, whilst the Transparency in Supply Chains provision within the Act seeks to address the role of businesses in preventing modern slavery from occurring in their supply chains and organisations, it was argued by the panel that there has been a lacklustre response by businesses to report on this.

In Kane's view, the "UK fashion industry would be incredibly powerful if it changed how it sourced in its supply chain" with Firth highlighting that brands should not underestimate their influence. When the annual sales of Walmart are higher than the annual GDP of over 144 countries, she said, "brands really need to own up and take more responsibility".

For Holdcroft, brands' willingness to engage with the issue was essential because they were the ones with a large enough stake in the supply chain to have the power to affect change.

However within the fashion industry specifically, the difficulty to report on their labour force lies in the complexity of the supply chains. McAspurn spoke about the limited visibility many brands have "with slavery going deep into the supply chain, it's hard to map out and examine beyond the first tier work force."

"We should not undermine the power of UK law to change multinational behavior towards their workforce through providing full disclosure on risks and results surrounding social, environmental and Human Rights issues." Jenny Holdcroft

With flexibility on how companies provide this information, and many issues around the integrity of the reporting process the path forward remains unclear and another uphill struggle. The main push back comes from companies having a perceived competitive advantage around non-disclosure of suppliers. An argument that holds little weight when considering the growing concern over coercive buyer forums and the possible anti-competitive behaviour of price fixing within the UK fashion industry.

Women for Women

On the topic of the industries gross exploitation of women, Firth expressed the view that fashion is a truly feminist issue. "We need to address this bulimia of consumption, and stop treating fashion as a disposable thing. Women in the west are doing a disservice to women on the otherside of the world. We are wearing the unhappy stories of other women."

In Holdcoft's view, the fashion industry is an amazing creator of jobs for women. For many developing countries factory work is better than the alternatives. "Yet this does not discount the fact that they're rubbish jobs." The solution she says is to empower their freedom of association. By educating women on the their workers rights, and supporting the process of unionizing, the path to a safer and more secure environment becomes easier to tread. However the priority is to involve women in the design of new initiatives; only by being part of the architectural process will these changes stand firm to the forces above.

"As women we should care and protect the women who make our clothes by shopping sensibly and resisting #fastfashion at any cost" Livia Firth

The Future could be Bright

Despite the complexities and scale of these industry-wide issues, the important thing to remember is that discussions are taking place at local, national, international and supranational levels.

Orsola de Castro, co-founder of the Fashion Revolution movement, closed the afternoons discussion by saying "the fashion industry is as unscrupulous as it is inscrutable, but there is great hope". Drawing parallels with the film industry she suggested that fashion was moving "from silent to sound. We can hear garment workers voices".

Only by involving these voices in the discussion process will a new future emerge. For Castro this is one filled with sound and colour: "transparency in technicolour" she smiled hopefully.

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