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