The garment industry of my motherland, Bangladesh, is burning, collapsing and struggling to stay afloat in the world economy.
The worst part?
All goods belong to the lowest bidder. No safety regulations, no living wage and no respect for the health, bodies and wellbeing of workers. As the Bangladeshi government scrambles in the face of another “accident,” thousands are protesting against abhorrent conditions in Bangladesh’s Savar Industrial Zone.
The names of the retailers’ tags discovered in the rubble: Mango, Joe Fresh and United Colors of Benetton. I can’t help but lament the irony of these names—evocative of the tropical, the colorful and alive, much like the verdant landscape of Bangladesh. The same sickening feeling I had on November 24, 2012, when a factory fire killed 112 Bangladeshi workers. Post-Thanksgiving meal, I jumped to sweep up Black Friday deals. More ironic names: Faded Glory. Gap.
Buried among these lost garments are the bodies of folks, mostly women, who knew that something was terribly wrong with the building when they clocked into work.
Now, where do we fit it in? I call us “we”—the fashion forward readers of Fashionista.com—we are this dispersed collective of enterprising, chic, cultured and globally conscious folks. Right? Yet, when it comes to shopping, myself included, I consume my share of fast fashion: H&M, Forever 21 (I know, I hate myself), Topshop, Zara. It’s so easy to look good for a job interview, a first date or just get a fix when you’re in need of some quick retail therapy. I tell myself I am broke as a joke, and can’t afford to spend money on clothes.
While companies like H&M have made strides toward transparency, releasing a full list of the factories they use, they admit to poor working conditions. Admission isn’t enough. We can’t just tuck this away in the This World is Horrible file.
Here’s a thought: Hey, designers! CEOs! Take a trip directly to the factories that make your first sketches into tangible, material consumer goods.
Not keen on getting mud on your Célines?
Look at it this way. The fine threads that make up a fashion business—the mills, the factories, the workers, lead time, margins and cash flow—make up the backbone of your brand. But if your garments are being made in decrepit labor prisons, it’s time you see this for yourself, upfront. It’s not enough to tiptoe around initiating “reforms.” See how your workers work—-the men and women who are beholden to that $37 a month wage to feed and clothe their families, educate their young ones—-and maybe you will understand that it is time for a change. The fashion industry must ensure that partner factories’ buildings are up to code. Subcontractors must be professionally trained to not abuse or coerce workers.
And for us, the so-called Fashion Forward--it’s a struggle, yes. We don't make much and investing in those locally made pieces can cost a pretty penny. But we’ve got to redirect our hard earned cash. You know you don’t want to look like everybody else. So wear things that no one else will have. Shop at independent boutiques and support local designers. Start hitting up vintage/consignment stores for oldies-yet-goodies straight from a rich lady’s estate. Find gems at Goodwill, Salvo, Buffalo Exchange, Beacon’s Closet. I hear Miami is a jackpot for vintage Chanel. Clothing swaps! Ebay. Trunk shows and sample sales. Your trash? It’s my treasure, baby.
If we stop clamoring for the quick fix, we can do our part to redirect the global economy’s obsession with making fast, cheap and high human cost clothes, into developing nation’s forging a pathway toward successful, human rights-oriented industrial growth. That means there must be living wages, workplace safety, inspections on buildings and an environment free of sexual abuse and intimidation. What seems impossible now, must be made a reality: a unionized labor force.
A New York Times Op-Ed article about the tragedy reminds us: “History shows that unions can make a big difference in improving working conditions…Strong unions could have prevented the loss of many lives by supporting workers who had noticed cracks in the structure but were forced back to work.”
Here in the U.S., in the 1920s and 1930s, The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union was once one of the largest labor unions in the U.S., composed of primarily female membership. The union’s formation came after the horrific 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City, where 146 women, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants, died. Since then, over years of different transformations and mergers, it’s now a union known as UNITE HERE. European textile workers have the European Trade Union Federation of Textiles, Clothing and Leather.
Bangladesh, along with other nations with exploited labor forces, produces loads of material goods, is rich with natural resources and hardworking people. Let this tragedy be a chance to redefine an economically and ecologically vibrant market for these countries.
Lastly, a definition, by way of Merriam Webster, for “hand-me-down”:
Put in use by one person or group after being used, discarded. Handed down. Cheap. Shoddy.
Garment workers are human beings, integral to our global economy. They are not hand-me-downs.
Tanwi Nandini Islam is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Her debut novel is forthcoming by Viking Penguin. Follower her on @tanwinandini.