By Antoine Didienne
On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed in the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The building was unsound, and the safety of all its occupants was put at risk daily. But since the owners of the factory had quotas to fulfill, the telltale signs were ignored. That day at 8:57 a.m. local time, 1,134 people died and over 2,500 were injured in the name of fast fashion.
In America, the average consumer buys over 68 items of clothing per person per year. That’s more than one item every week! We often buy clothes that just sit in our closets with the tags still on. We shop and we don’t realize that the clothes we buy have consequences to the environment, economy and human lives.
The fashion industry has been very successful at making us forget that human beings, not machines, have sewn the clothes we wear. Fashion is a trillion-dollar industry (the second largest in the U.S.), employing approximately 23.6 million people. It is the second largest polluter in the world (after the oil industry) and is one of the largest abusers of human rights. From cotton fields to sweatshops, the fast fashion industry leaves a trail of destruction in its wake.
We forget that these people, most of whom are young women, work 12 to 15 hours per day, six to seven days each week, in conditions that we would be appalled by. The reason for these conditions is that saving money on basic human safety makes it a few cents cheaper to produce our clothes. The tens of thousands of people who work in the garment industry in Bangladesh often make as little as 25 cents per hour.
Now, two years later, has anything changed? Are things better or worse?
Let’s start with the “worse": Our friends at American Apparel and their “made in Bangladesh” ad. Although I applaud the company for taking a stand on making its clothes downtown Los Angeles, its “made in Bangladesh” ad is not fashion, it is exploitation.
Onto the “better” outcomes. The most important thing is that the families of the victims of Rana Plaza have received some compensation for their loss. The Bangladeshi government created what is commonly referred to as "the arrangement.” It is a trust fund (also called the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund) dedicated to the victims and their families that is managed by the International Labor Organization, a U.N. entity. So far, over $12 million has been donated and distributed directly to the families through mobile banking.
Also, many of the apparel brands that contracted with Rana Plaza, as well as many not associated with the disaster, have signed a fire and safety agreement to prevent hiring subcontractors with less-than-adequate facilities.
Change is hard. I have bought, and sometimes still buy, clothes that have been made with questionable ethics. Fast fashion is prolific because clothes are inexpensive and readily available. However, it is my dream to be part of changing the face and pace of the fashion industry. I want to be a disruptor of the system as it is. That’s why my company, Vavavida, is based on what we call full-circle economics: a sustainable system of retailing jewelry made ethically (i.e. fair trade) and giving back to the countries where we source our products.
We designed our company to be a chang- maker, and there are many others just like us. Just check out the Ethical Fashion Source Network for a list of (mostly U.K.-based) fashion designers with a conscience. Also, there are people like model Lily Cole doing good things to change fashion. I will also give props to H&M, which is actively trying to clean up its act.
So, please just consider what your options are when you buy clothes. Start by looking at the tag before buying and understanding that your purchasing decisions do have an impact. Those 68 pieces of clothing you buy this year can either help or hurt. We make a choice every time we spend our money on whether we want to support ethical fashion or the destructive cycle of fast fashion. Make a stand with your wallet, and wear clothes that represent sustainable fashion.
Image credit: Flickr/Darren Johnson
Antoine Didienne is a social entrepreneur and the founder of Vavavida, an online retailer of ethical boho-chic fashion accessories.