With the 1st anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster recently passing, it’s important to look at the progress being made within the Bangladesh garment industry. Despite worldwide public shock at the events which unfolded on April 23rd 2013, when the eight-storey factory collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 1,129 workers and a further estimated 2,500 injuries, the garment industry is still booming with around 80 billion new garments being produced a year. What goes on behind the scenes at some the most popular and successful department stores in the world demands a reform in their supply-chain to prevent another Rana Plaza from happening.
Why did it happen?
Bangladesh’s specialization in the garment industry has transformed its economy, with global apparel exports that now account for 4.8%, in stark contrast to 0.6% in 1980. At this point in time, Bangladesh has a production level which is comparable with an emerging economy, and is the only LDC (least developed country) to do so. However, this current level of production isn’t being matched at an industrial capacity. This gap has therefore created an industry where employees and factory owners are under extreme working conditions to meet western product demands, resulting in disastrous events regularly occurring.
In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, it was important to prevent international businesses jumping ship and creating turmoil for over 4 million fast-fashion workers. Rather than shutting down factories or organising wide-spread boycotting strategies, which would just further hurt the workers that they intend to help, it was essential to start transforming the industry into a safe and fair environment for Bangladeshi workers. It could have been possible to prevent this catastrophe through simple methods of factory inspections, and giving workers the opportunity to voice their concerns about working conditions without fearing the loss of their job, salary or physical safety.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has been playing a central role in co-ordinating work to support sustainable change for the industry. Through three different factory inspection programmes (The Bangladesh Accord, the Alliance for Bangladesh, and the National Tripartite Committee) it is estimated that 3,500 factories will have been assessed for meeting minimum factory standards by September this year.
Furthermore, the international trade union UNI Global Union states “There is no such thing as a truly safe factory without informed and engaged workers on the factory floor with an independent voice to raise problems and enforce solutions”. However, despite a rise in trade unions in the Bangladesh garment industry, the process of recruiting members must be kept quiet otherwise trade unionists face the possibility of violence, harassment and also being made unemployed.
While various brands producing garments at Rana Plaza have taken responsibility and provided compensation, many other brands connected to the event are still refusing to admit their involvement or offer any kind of support for victims and their families. The Rana Plaza Coordination Committee set out a minimum of $40m to be raised by companies involved, but have so far raised only $17m to date, half of which was donated by British retailer Primark.
Fast fashion companies thrive by routinely introducing new items to keep customers coming back regularly. Where the standard production turnaround time from catwalk to consumer used to be 6-months, stores such as H&M now push their suppliers to manufacture batches of garments within a matter of weeks. As well as the horrific working conditions for employees, the production and consumption of fast fashion is having dramatic effects on the environment. Badly made and cheap clothes have created a culture of disposable clothing, with an estimated 12.7 million tonnes of clothes being thrown away in America every year alone. Bangladesh also has very little in the way of emission regulations resulting in a massive rise in air pollution, while also increasing the amount of harmful chemicals being released into vegetation and waterways. Furthermore, a Cambridge University study found that the industry use around 70 million tons of water per year, which could be instead be for drinking water or growing crops, and the process of transforming oil into polyester is further contributing to the rapid exploitation of the earth’s oil reserves.
Despite Rana Plaza, there have be no signs of any signficant changes in western attitudes or behaviour. Fast fashion has developed a culture where the rights of workers are quietly forgotten in exchange for large profits. Furthermore, the processes in which products are being manufactured, produced and then disposed of are affecting the environment in many destructive ways. While various breakthroughs for factory inspections and Trade Unions are being made in Bangladesh, large and fundamental shifts in behaviour must also be adopted by western consumers and corporations.