I woke up this morning to news that there had been yet another garment factory fire in Bangladesh, which killed 8 night shift workers. A collective shaking our heads is in order, before we get into the very necessary next steps that fashion brands, the Bangladeshi government, garment labor groups, and we, the “fashionistas,” must take. With 900 garment workers dead and counting, the Rana Plaza factory collapse on April 24 is the worst disaster in the garment industry’s history. Sadly, there are no guarantees it is the last. Just after the collapse, I’d called for brands to start holding their factories accountable, and for us to resist buying fast fashion.
The glaring truth: boycotting brands does further damage to this delicate situation. While we’ve got to be mindful of where we shop, it’s not enough to simply buy vintage, slide on our sunnies and turn away. Bangladesh is home to 3.6 million garment workers, and generated $18 billion in apparel exports last year, second only to China. For young women in a developing, increasingly conservative Muslim country, working in the garment industry is a chance to make a living, extend their education and delay marriage by choice. According to a study by Yale University economics professor Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, “a doubling of garment jobs causes a 6.71 percent increase in the probability that a 5-year-old girl is in school.”
In an interview with Pramila Jayapal at The Nation, Kalpona Akter, the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (and a former child garment worker) says: “We really don’t think that not buying is the solution for us…a boycott doesn’t help us. Instead, we want people to write letters to Walmart, talk to their communities and friends about what is happening, raise their voice and protest at the stores with their physical presence. We want U.S. consumers to say, ‘We’re watching you and we demand that you pay attention.’”
Ms. Akter also just concluded her End Death Traps tour, along with Sumi Abedin, a survivor of the November 24, 2012 Tazreen factory fire, where they spoke to audiences about demanding compensation and accountability for fire and building safety from companies like Wal-Mart.
What might do even more harm?
Companies deciding to completely pull out their business. Disney confirmed its new permitted sourcing countries policy earlier this March “to transition the production of Disney-branded goods out of the highest-risk countries…to more effectively focus our resources…in locations more likely to make continuous improvements in working conditions.”
Disney’s policy shift came swiftly after the Tazreen factory fire, where burnt scraps of Mickey Mouse-emblazoned clothes were allegedly discovered in the ashes. (Disney denied contracting with the factory in Tazreen.) But the company’s cut and run from Bangladesh and other “highest-risk” countries will not make things better.
Come on, now. We all know pulling out doesn’t work. It’s irresponsible. It isn’t a solution.
According to Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, the “whole ethical fashion movement is nipping at these brands’ heels.” “[We need] a two-prong approach, where consumers need to put pressure on brands to improve safety conditions, and the brands have to change,” she says. “We’re at a turning point.”
According to the Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium, the cost to the global garment industry to bring Bangladeshi factories’ safety standards up to code under the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement:
$3 billion, over 5 years.
The cost to consumers for this upgrade in 4,500 factories:
10 cents, per garment.
For that extra dime, check your clutches and couches.