As the death toll in the Rana Plaza building collapse outside the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka climbs past 400, the kinship between our purchasing decisions and the loss of life is becoming harder to ignore. This has been the deadliest industrial disaster to hit the beleaguered South Asian nation, resulting in three times the number of fatalities as the devastating Tazreen Fashions fire a mere five months ago. Despite all the hair-rending and chest-thumping back in November, very little has changed about our so-called “race to the bottom” for cheaper, trendier clothes. History keeps repeating itself, all for a $9.99 dress that makes us feel better about ourselves and our place in life. Make that $9.99 plus 446 human lives in this past month alone. Take that, world.
What’s that you say? Not everyone has the means to shop indie designers? Gap, H&M, Forever 21, and Joe Fresh (a brand that outsourced to one of the plaza’s five garment factories, by the by) are all you can afford?
Let’s not kid ourselves—we don’t need so many new things all the time. At least, not at the rate at which we’ve been consuming. Most of that stuff we don’t even wear, according to pollsters.
Hyperbole, much? We have 446 reasons why it isn’t. The apparel brands and retailers that pressure these factories to meet their production targets at rock-bottom prices, while refusing to pay for fire and building-safety improvements, shoulder much of the blame, that is true.
But we and our insatiable appetites for low-cost “looks”? We’re the fuel that drives that infernal machine.
Fashion is moving so fast even tragedies like Tazreen and Rana Plaza are picking up speed.
March 25 marked the 102nd anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that claimed the lives of 146 mostly young women in New York City. That disaster changed the course of labor laws in the United States. But Bangladesh, along with neighboring Pakistan, has not been so lucky.
Eight years after the collapse of the Spectrum garment factory killed 64 and injured 80 others—illegally built floors, much like at Rana Plaza, were to blame—Western companies are still refusing to sign the Bangladesh Fire Building and Safety Agreement, developed by key labor stakeholders in Bangladesh and abroad, that would require independent building inspections, worker-rights training, public accountability, and a long-overdue review of the country’s safety standards.
“Accountability is frequently lost in the ‘CSR supply chain,’” noted a recent report from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. “And where local monitors have actually sided with workers against employer exploitation, they too have become ignored in order to spare big-name household brands embarrassment.”
So yeah, nobody likes to think of themselves as terrorists. But before you lash out and cry foul (or worse), just give yourself a few days and let that thought simmer.
When we allow ourselves to be dazzled by the promise of bargain-price glamour, when we opt for disposable Frankenfabrics made by people who suffer from fits of fainting because 18 cents an hour doesn’t buy much food, when we’re subsidizing the very companies whose clothing labels and purchase orders were found in the rubble, we’re just as complicit.
We may not be setting fires to these factories ourselves, but we might as well be the ones holding the match.