Who IS to blame? Critiquing the fast fashion model after the 2013 factory disaster in Bangladesh

A new journal article has been published critiquing the events that led to the tragic 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh where 1,127 people were killed. Published in Critical Perspectives on International Business, 10(1/2) Ian Taplin asks ‘Who is to blame? A re-examination of fast fashion after the 2013 factory disaster in Bangladesh’. The paper is freely available to the general public until Christmas so you can read it for yourself here. In the article, Taplin provides an overview of global clothing supply chains and how increased consumer demand and trade law liberalisation created the context for the precarious supply chains and ‘race to the bottom’ that ultimately led to the Rana Plaza fatalities along with hundreds of other factory deaths in Bangladesh alone.

So who is to blame? I’m going to start with Taplin’s abstract. Granted, abstracts are tricky to write but assuming that an author tries to cover the paper’s key points, Taplin’s take home message is the following:

Finally, blame is apportioned to Western consumers whose insatiable appetite for ‘fashionable’ goods merely feeds a retail system that was set up to resolve earlier supply chain problems and ended up taking advantage of changing international trade regimes.

Normally, I’d be quick to place responsibility on consumers but place all the blame? I don’t think so. It’s like the chicken or the egg – what came first, consumer demand for cheap stuff? Or cheap stuff? If you switch the question around to ask who is the victim, rather than who’s to blame, I think everyone comes off the victim except the retailer. Consumers fall victim to being manipulated by mass media, postmodern culture and retail advertising to part with their cash on the belief that owning another dress will make them happier in some way. Suppliers are victim to retailer demands, who, at the click of their fingers can switch to a supplier/country offering a better deal (the race to the bottom), and of course workers are victims, exploited for their labour because they have few other options to earn a living (especially as states for example, favour exports over small scale local industries).

It’s an incredibly complex issue as myself and so many others continue to repeat. Taplin captures much of this complexity in his paper and if you read the whole thing, he doesn’t only lay blame on consumers. That said, I’m not sure what the ‘earlier supply chain problems’ that needed to be resolved actually are. He goes on to say (p.74) that:

Manufacturing in the clothing industry is labour-intensive, hence competitive success for manufacturers has been achieved through cost-minimisation strategies that generally revolve around the search for low wage labour.

Perhaps this is the problem he speaks of, the fact that clothes manufacturing is labour intensive and hence expensive. This isn’t the consumer’s fault though, and we’d be better, more sustainable consumers if more manufacturing had stayed in the Global North, protecting jobs even if goods where a bit more expensive. Towards the end of the paper Taplin claims that ‘the average Western consumer remains largely indifferent to the plight of those workers overseas’. I don’t disagree with this in entirety but his only evidence is reference to an Evening Standard article on Primark shoppers, so do Primark shoppers constitute the ‘average’ shopper?

Interestingly last weekend I overheard two young teenage girls discussing Primark and child labour whilst in the fitting rooms of TKMaxx. One wanted to go there and one didn’t for the very reason that their clothes were ‘made in sweatshops’. They also talked about Apple, the other girl claiming it was good she didn’t have an i-Phone as they use child labour too. I expect they still went to Primark and spent their allowance there, but maybe in 5 years time or so they will be able to turn that knowledge into action. So I don’t think we can make any claims about the ‘average’ shopper when attitudes and awareness is changing faster than ever.

I’m not anti-capitalist but I do think Taplin’s article would benefit from a radical critique of the particular capitalist model that has fed the fashion retail industry as it stands today. He hasn’t gone far enough to consider the factors leading to the Rana Plaza disaster and ultimately situates such tragedies as inevitable without apportioning significant blame on the retailers and broader societal norms.

Ian M. Taplin , (2014) “Who is to blame?: A re-examination of fast fashion after the 2013 factory disaster in Bangladesh”, Critical Perspectives on International Business, Vol. 10 Iss: 1/2, pp.72 – 83

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Bangladesh Factory Collapse – News and Comment Round-up

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.

Dhaka Clothing Factory Copyright: Ellie Tighe

Dhaka Clothing Factory Copyright: Ellie Tighe

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.

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Supply Crisis 2010

I like it when Drapers arrives through my door each Friday. A point that just jumped out at me this morning was Drapers Review of the Year where it talks about the supply crisis. I’ve already mentioned the cotton issues, which was the major cause of supply issues, however drapers also state, “with rising labour costs in China – pay went up 30% this year – businesses were forced to look elsewhere, notably Bangladesh.”

I am aware that this is the reality, but it makes me so sad that it is felt to be the only option. The Chinese workers deserve that pay increase, but of course consumers in the West are accustomed to low prices. Retailers have spent the last few decades chasing cheap labour, sooner or later consumers are just going to have to accept how much it costs to make clothes ethically.
Bangladesh is still one of the worst (ethically speaking) places to manufacture, and therefore the cheapest. Just this week 31 workers were killed in a factory fire in Bangladesh, and 200 injured.

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