Nearly two weeks after the collapse of the Bangladeshi factory complex the story continues to dominate the news. Some 3000 workers were inside the Rana Plaza, an 8 storey illegally constructed factory complex in Dhaka, when it collapsed at around 9am on Wednesday 24th April 2013. The factories produced clothing for major Western fashion brands including Primark, Matalan, Bon Marche and Mango. The death toll has now reached 550, including children who were in the crèche facilities. Some lay under the rubble half alive for days, others are still missing.
When I first heard about this, my primary emotion (perhaps surprisingly) wasn’t sadness, but anger. As the death toll rose and I watched footage on the TV, the anger dissipated to deep sadness and despair. It isn’t the first disaster in a Bangladeshi clothing factory, in the last eight years alone 1000 people have died in similar incidents and fires, but it is the worst to date. My only hope is that the disaster acts as a wake-up call for the industry, and for western consumers. It’s all too easy to detach yourself from where your clothes are made, but the truth is any one of us could have clothing in our wardrobes made and touched by the hand of someone who died that day. I certainly don’t want to have blood on my hands.
I’m glad the press have taken to this story, I mean of course they would, it’s world news, it would have been pretty hard for the British public to have missed it. The Financial Times challenged the world’s retailers to start using their ‘economic muscle’ to fight for change for properly enforced safety standards in factories, although, as pointed out by The New York Times, this isn’t easy when 10% of the parliamentary seats in Bangladesh are held by factory owners and their families. The retailers involved in sourcing from the Rana Plaza complex have been named and shamed by the press, after coming forward themselves with statements. Benetton had had an order completed by one of the factories housed there some weeks before, stating in a press release that it had be subcontracted out to the factory by one of its other suppliers.
Subcontracting is a massive problem. Often the factories visited by UK buyers and merchandisers are nice enough, like the one below visited by my colleague Ellie Tighe (read Ellie’s comment to ITV news here). It’s when orders are outsourced that the greatest problems occur, and whilst this isn’t the retailers fault per say, they do have a responsibility to fully audit and trace their supply chains. Retailers can’t continue to shift the blame to subcontractors; they should know what each supplier’s capacity is and what their workload is.
What can consumers do?
So what can we do? I hope a number of people are contemplating this very question in light of the tragic events. Should we boycott clothes made in Bangladesh? Personally, I have certainly tried to avoid anything made in Bangladesh for the last couple of years, and I do boycott Primark for promotion of fast fashion, but avoiding the high street all together is tough. David Blair, commenting in The Telegraph advocates a boycott of Primark and its owners, Associated British Foods, placing the responsibility firmly with the consumer.
But Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of clothing in the world, if we stop buying it, what will happen to those workers? The working conditions and wages may seem anything from less than favourable to utterly appalling from our standards, but things are slowly improving in many instances. Clearly, less developed countries have a different measuring stick to us; what I have a problem with is Western retailers and consumers exploiting this for their own gain. We do not need this cheap, fast fashion. We are well clothed. People should not be dying so that we can buy a little t-shirt for the same price as a large frothy coffee.
Labour Behind the Label have a quick and easy guide to shopping more ethically here.