More than 600 garment workers died in the Rana Plaza collapse on April 24, 2013 in a commercial area near Dhaka, Bangladesh. With most companies distancing themselves and denying responsibility (e.g. Walmart and Benetton) or blaming the government in Bangladesh and/or the subcontractors who run the garment factories, it is doubtful that customers who purchase inexpensive clothing will personally connect their consumption practices to the death of workers in Bangladesh. There are too many links in the supply chain for consumers to feel any personal responsibility. The production process is complex and far removed. Holding companies such as Loblaw are names that are unrecognizable to consumers. If a customer learns that the Joe Fresh brand is owned by Loblaw they will also come to know that the company maintains that it adheres to the highest standards of ethical sourcing. The problem resides in Bangladesh. Bangladesh fails to provide its garment workers with acceptable working conditions. As consumers hear the names of brands they own and are familiar with: Gap, Mango, Tommy Hilfiger, they are less likely to take responsibility and are more likely to see the problem as part of a system that even the brands themselves are not likely to be able to control.
Where then is the origin of the problem, or at least the driving force behind the deplorable and deadly conditions millions of garment workers face daily? Fashion in the age of turbo-capitalism and hyper-consumption is no longer a seasonal, controlled system. Today it requires that a constant influx of new styles from multiple brands at a variety of price points be available to an ever-expanding global audience. The desire for newness and for choice on the part of consumers accelerates the cycle of change in fashion and calls for increased speed in design, production and distribution of goods. Animated by new marketing technologies brands put forward not only offerings of clothing but desired lifestyles in which identities become anchored.
For factories such as those housed in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh and elsewhere, the demand for a faster turnaround time at the lowest possible price drives wages down and makes choices such as closing down for needed repairs seem impossible. Three levels were illegally added on according to an article by Jason Notte in MSN Money. Until attitudes and the social values that inform these attitudes shift, unfortunate situations like this one will only be small bleeps in an otherwise unstoppable forward moving force, steamrolling ahead.
Only two major brands, PVH Corporation (which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein) and the German retailer Tchibo were willing to sign a fire and building safety agreement to help protect workers according to an article by Steve Greenhouse in the New York Times. In this same article, Galen G. Weston, Loblaw’s chairman, points to a “deafening silence” from the apparel industry. A dialogue around this issue is possible but it is quite unlikely to be one that concerns a large global audience of fashion consumers. Rather we can expect to hear from a variety of small groups if we listen carefully and seek out these voices.
Photo from Guardian