Photo by The New York Times
In 2013, the Rana Plaza collapse at the Dhaka garment factory took the lives of 1,132 workers and irreversibly damaged the lives of many more, who are still dealing with the aftermath today. Has the fast fashion industry and its consumers learned the much-needed lesson from this disaster? Is minimalist fashion the way forward?
What caused the Rana Plaza collapse?
The Rana Plaza factory collapse was the deadliest garment factory disaster to date. The devastating collapse was caused by a multitude of factors, including substandard construction material, and a clear violation of building codes. Despite these unsafe working conditions, factory workers were still encouraged to work in the Dhaka garment factory, which produced apparel for fast fashion companies such as Joe Fresh, JC Penney, Primark, and more.
One of the most disheartening parts of the collapse is that it was both foreseeable and preventable. Due to the substandard (and illegal) construction of the upper floors of the Dhaka garment factory, the power generators often shook the building, and caused visible cracks in the building’s framework on April 23rd- a day before disaster struck. Yet, despite being fully aware of these cracks, the Rana Plaza owner, Sohel Rana, ignored the warning signs and forced the factory workers back into the building the next day. On April 24th, 2013, as soon as the power generators were turned on, the building collapsed, and over a thousand lives were lost. At that level of negligence, can the collapse even be considered an accident?
Are workers in overseas garment factories exploited?
You may be wondering, if the Dhaka garment factory was so clearly a dangerous place to be, why would people still choose to work there? The short answer is that these workers simply did not (and still do not) have a choice.
It is a sad fact that the workers in these overseas garment factories are exploited. Many of these workers are vulnerable women who have no other viable options for work, and need to provide for their families. They are severely underpaid for gruelling and dangerous work.
In Bangladesh specifically, garment factory workers make approximately $120 CAD (or $95 USD) per month- and that wage is an improvement. In 2013, when the Rana Plaza disaster occurred, workers only made around $45 CAD per month. This unbelievably low labour cost makes Bangladesh an extremely popular location for fast fashion companies to source from. In fact, it’s so popular that it is the second-largest apparel exporter in the world, only beat out by China. However, such low labour costs come at a very high price, that the workers themselves are forced to pay.
With the garment industry accounting for 84% of Bangladesh’s exports, these factories aren’t going anywhere, and provide many more job opportunities for local workers than most industries. These garment factory workers must blindly place their trust in the buildings they work in, for if they don’t, they fear not being paid at all.
It is easy for those of us in positions of privilege to ignore the harm that our actions cause. Because it is removed from our immediate perceptions, we have to actively educate ourselves on said harm. It can be uncomfortable to acknowledge the damage that we indirectly cause around the globe, and seems impossible to wrap your head around- I get it. I suggest reading stories like Laboni’s, a young victim of the Rana Plaza disaster, to really visualize and understand the devastating impact that our purchases can have on families around the globe.
Photo by Claudio Montesano Casillas for Roads & Kingdoms
Has the fashion industry changed since Rana Plaza?
The Rana Plaza disaster was shocking, disturbing, and made headlines worldwide. Yet, it somehow was not disturbing enough to make a tangible, permanent change in the supply chain structure of the fast fashion industry. To this day, fast fashion brands around the world utilize the unethically sourced labour that can be found in these overseas garment factories, and take advantage of the vulnerable people working there.
Not only are these workers forced into unsafe work, but they are forced into excessive amounts of it. The excess buying and hyper-consumerism that is pushed upon consumers in countries like Canada and the United States not only feeds into the unethical labour system previously outlined, but causes extensive harm to the planet as well. The fast fashion industry is responsible for up to 10% of global carbon emissions, much of which is emitted for nothing, as 85% of all textiles end up in the dump every year.
Despite increasing consumer sentiment for improved sustainability measures, the fashion industry has yet to make any real, long-term changes for the better. Any changes that have been implemented seem more reactive and short-lived than genuine and proactive. For example, as a result of the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, several of the companies indicted signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which successfully improved safety measures for 1,600 garment factories. Yet, this life-saving Accord is set to expire on August 31, 2021. While negotiations are underway, a successor agreement that will continue to save the lives of thousands of workers is up in the air. If a future agreement cannot be efficiently reached, or if it delegates power to local Bangladeshi governing bodies, the at-risk workers have very little faith that they will be protected.
Even with the Accord in place, fast fashion brands have still found a way to harm garment factory workers. In March 2020, when massive shutdowns occurred worldwide due to the Coronavirus pandemic, many brands like Walmart, Primark, and more, cancelled their orders from Bangladeshi factories that were already in production. This directly led to thousands of women being left without jobs, and without pay, for work that they had already completed. It is clear that without external pressure, fast fashion companies still do not care about the lives of these Bangladeshi workers who carry the brands’ profit margins on their backs.
Unfortunately, as per the classic economic theory of supply and demand, we as consumers have failed our duty to these workers as well. As a collective group, consumers have the power to create positive social change, and influence companies to do better. However, if that feels too intimidating, or downright impossible, don’t despair. There is still a lot of social good you can easily create as an individual person.
How to avoid fast fashion:
If you’ve made it this far in the article, you probably feel quite disheartened. While this is an extremely heavy issue to face head-on, there are several ways that we as consumers can make a change.
The easiest way to avoid fast fashion and the unethical impacts that come with it is simply to buy less. We are constantly being told by fast fashion conglomerates and the social media influencers they hire that we need more. It’s time to tune them out and embrace a more minimalist lifestyle.
It is impossible for fast fashion and sustainability to go hand in hand, by definition alone. Embracing a minimalist way of being will not only directly reduce your eco-footprint and contribute to sustainability efforts, but minimalist fashion will also allow you to declutter your life (and closet) to lead a happier existence.
How to shop ethically:
Minimalist fashion is a great way to counter the fast fashion industry, and get on board with its counterpart, slow fashion. It’s a movement towards buying less, and utilizing timeless apparel that will last a lifetime and survive any trend.
Unlike fast fashion, minimalism and sustainability easily go hand in hand. They complement one another, both leading to increased personal satisfaction (say goodbye to your cognitive dissonance) and global good. If you’re unsure of where to start, here are some great ways to engage with minimalist fashion as a beginner:
1. Ease into minimalism with second-hand shopping. If you have a habit of impulse shopping, and/or are new to the idea of minimalist fashion, it can be a bit overwhelming. But remember, it’s better to make a slow and sustainable change to your habits than to crash and burn while trying to change your entire lifestyle at once.
To take baby steps, try shopping second-hand for any of your impulsive or unnecessary clothing purchases. I promise you, the world of thrift shopping has become much chicer than the old dingy stereotypes could ever imagine. Try searching for local thrift stores in your area to find some hidden gems (if you’re in Canada, start your research here), or head to online stores like thredUp for a huge variety of good quality second-hand clothing- no mothballs allowed.
2. Build a capsule wardrobe to minimize the amount of clothing you need and maximize your cost-per-wear. Curate your own unique style and create a surprising number of outfit combinations with one perfectly planned wardrobe.
3. Organize clothing swaps within your community. These can be done with a small group of friends, or with a large group in your city! Check out these tips for how to organize one, big or small. With clothing swaps, you can take companies out of the equation altogether. You won’t be contributing anything new, simply transferring what you already have, consumer-to-consumer. There will be zero chance of creating clothing waste. It’s a win-win for everyone involved (except for Zara- but that’s alright)!
No matter how you choose to engage with minimalist fashion, the important thing is to take steps every day (no matter how small) to create positive change in our world. While fast fashion companies have light years to go before, they become remotely ethical, it’s up to us to do everything we can to influence them in the right direction. The 1,132 lives lost during the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 were not the first victims of the garment factory industry, and they will unfortunately not be the last. However, we must remember and honour them every single day by purposely creating social change- towards minimalism, sustainability, and ethical labour practices.