A Reflection on the dangers of the global fashion industry.
By Mary Stringham.
On April 24, 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, an eight-story commercial building that housed five garment factories collapsed, killing 1,138 people and leaving more than 2,500 injured. Now known as the Rana Plaza factory collapse, the event forced not only the fashion industry but the world, to acknowledge the dark side of fast fashion. Known as one of the biggest industrial accidents ever, Rana Plaza shone a light on the global fashion industry’s unethical production practices that place poorly paid garment workers in unsafe conditions. Despite the global shock and outcry, Rana Plaza did not change clothing production practices overnight. Today, fast fashion and poor labor conditions are still the industry norm.
Fashion scholars like Rachel Bick, Erika Halsey, and Christine C. Ekenga say that the state of fashion is all thanks to the liberalized trade regimes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Products designed in the global north, like the United States, are now almost all completely offshored for production to low-income-countries in the global south, such as Bangladesh and China. It’s in those countries that fashion companies find cheap labor and tax-breaks, making the locales appealing for production. In addition to an extremely low-cost workforce, these factories have a large enough staff to mobilize for quick product turnaround. This has collapsed the production process from many months to a few weeks, allowing retailers to continually put new and fashionable clothes on the market. This is fast fashion—inadequate work environments where underpaid workers manufacture products out of low-quality materials quickly and for cheap prices. The clothes are then sold for a low price, only to be worn a handful of times by the consumer, and then sent to landfill. It’s a broken but seductive system that has continued to wreak havoc on our world at both a social and environmental level.
In recent years, however, there has been a shift in consumption practices, especially among those in the Gen Z and Millennial age brackets. More and more consumers are becoming aware of the effect their shopping habits have on the world. As such, many buyers are now living in an age of “woke” consumerism which has led many to expect more socially conscious decisions from their retailers. Take the popular Everlane or Reformation for example, both tout socially responsible manufacturing and knowledge of their supply chains, (though it’s important to note that even Everlane, known for “radical transparency,” was recently accused of union-busting).
Many fashion retailers, even those who claim to be ethical, exploit social-causes like environmentalism for capital gain. Brands like Zara announced their own crowd-pleasing sustainability goals last year, yet continue to follow a fast fashion business model that produces huge amounts of low-quality, low-cost clothes. This is a perfect example of greenwashing, a term coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westervelt.
Fortunately, people are working to combat these issues. Global movements like Fashion Revolution, an action-centered and solution-focused organization, work tirelessly to fight the multitude of problems that stem from fast fashion. The organization demands radical change within the clothing industry. Late last April marked their Fashion Revolution Week. This event was originally established in 2014 after Rana Plaza to raise awareness about the social and environmental issues caused by global fashion production. Their goal is to work towards “a global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit.”
Covid-19 has brought its own problems to fast fashion production. Brands and retailers are canceling or reducing orders, which have put millions of jobs in jeopardy worldwide. This has shut down factories causing extensive job-loss for many garment workers in the global south. The people who manufacture fast fashion tend to be women, and these jobs can often be the only thing keeping them and their families out of poverty. While the rest of the world has been focusing on social distancing and lockdown, many of these workers are struggling to meet their households’ basic needs.
After this pandemic, some business savvy insiders – like the writers at BOF – predict that the supply chain might become more localized as brands begin to understand how unreliable offshore production can be in times of crisis. While this might create more sustainable and transparent supply chains, it could also mean prolonged unemployment for those in the global south who rely on manufacturing jobs, like the aforementioned garment workers.
It’s blatantly clear that now, more than ever, it’s important that we fight for a more just fashion industry.