The United Nation’s International Labor Organization (ILO) is calling for major retailers like Walmart, H&M and Gap to sign onto the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. Between May 1-4, there have been crucial, high-level meetings between brands, labor and government, about enacting the agreement. According to the ILO, the Bangladeshi government must initiate the action plan to improve working conditions, including the “hiring of 200 additional inspectors within six months, and a budget increase for 800 inspectors.” More than 4,000 regular folks have signed this Change.org petition to demand companies sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.
There are tangible, successful examples of ways brands can shift to more ethical practices. Knight’s Apparel, the college apparel brand, owns their factories in the Dominican Republic. They take complete responsibility for what’s happening on the factory floor. According to Cline, “that does not translate into an increased cost for the consumer. It’s important from a branding perspective—[a company] takes on costs to make things eco-friendly and ethical.” Companies like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher build long-term relationships with their factories. “There’s complete transparency, allowing to consumers find out about the factory and country where their apparel is produced.”
A recent New York Times article about the fair trade movement expanding from the food world to the fashion world (so we as shoppers can know where our clothes come from) notes that “cheap clothes, no matter where or how they are manufactured, still sell, as H&M, Zara and Joe Fresh show through their rapid expansion.” Fast fashion sells, because it gives us a chance to buy trends that begin on faraway, expensive runways. There’s that moment when I’m picking up a pair of $10 floral denim shorts at Forever 21, and I peel back the tag. Made in ____. And I look around at other shoppers, all of us young and broke, rummaging through the sales racks, buying cheap clothes that are diluted from the original high-fashion intention. We buy it anyway.
The difference now is we want to know where it comes from. An exciting development that’s happening in fashion is a labeling system, so that “when you walk into an H&M, you’ll experience something similar to when you buy fair trade coffee,” says Cline.
How does it work? The special label will reveal that an independent workers’ rights group has toured and inspected the garment factory, approving that it meets standards.
Alonzo Suson, Bangladesh Director of the labor rights group, Solidarity Center, has been conducting surveys with survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse. There’s an eerie repetition to all of the survivors’ stories: I wasn’t forced, but my supervisor said I would lose my pay.
Some of them ended up losing their limbs.
Suson says, “When brands push the price down, it pushes the owners to cut cost. Ethical buying is about ensuring freedom, making sure that people’s right to organize is implemented. I don’t think you can change the employers’ position on organizing, unless brands say unionized labor is required to do business. That would trigger something.”
Brands have immense leverage when it comes to the factories, and ultimately they’ve got leverage over the Bangladeshi government’s regulation practices. “I’m very skeptical about anything the Bangladeshi government is saying. They’re taking cues from these brands, so it’s up to the brands,” says Cline.
In a defensive (and depressing) interview with CNN International’s Christiane Amanpour, it’s evident that Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina has little knowledge of what’s happening on the ground in garment factories and the implications of the collapse on the garment industry’s future. Ms. Amanpour sharply catches Sheikh Hasina fumbling for an excuse. Says Hasina, “Anywhere in the world, these accidents take place. You can’t predict anything…Bangladesh now is a place for good condition for their investment…”
When Amanpour mentions the murder of labor activist Aminul Islam by police, again Hasina denies the government’s knowledge of his role in the labor movement.
The Bangladeshi government has continually suppressed the burgeoning organization of garment workers and other labor movements in Bangladesh. Losing businesses seeking the cheapest labor in the world is too great a risk. The blind eye they’ve turned to decrepitude and abuse has enabled factory owners like Rana Plaza’s Sohel Rana to threaten workers when they bring up legitimate concerns.
Says Suson, “Of the 4,000+ garment factories, there are only 30 factory level unions, 20 of which formed in the last six months after the Tazreen factory fire. Workers were organizing, but the Government refused to recognize them and register the unions. Without unions, it’s hard, if not impossible, for workers to raise issues.”
Now, for us, the fashion forward, what are some things we can do?
Being political about what we wear everyday is not something most of us think about. However, a lot of folks turned up on the streets throughout the world on May 1, International Workers Day, joining protests with labor rights groups in front of major retailers. Besides buying from local designers or second-hand, we can try investigating what’s behind a brand before we buy. ShopEthica lists some handy apps to help you shop, including Good Guide, which I’ve used to see check what products are environmentally and ethically safe, mostly for beauty and bath companies. They list a few apparel companies, (I only know Levi’s, Armani and Patagonia on their list) although I’m sure this is evolving because of the current state of affairs.
Social media is a weapon. Inundating the Facebook and Twitter feeds with your harsh and demanding opinions of a company’s buying practices is more powerful than you know. They’ll do anything to protect their brand.
Let’s hope this is true.
Tanwi Nandini Islam is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Her debut novel is forthcoming by Viking Penguin. Follower her on @tanwinandini.