April 24th, 2018 marks five years after the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which took the lives of over 1000 garment workers, and injured another 2000. This tragedy brought attention to the terrible human rights abuses and environmental degradation caused by the global fashion industry. In the wake of such a large scale disaster, social advocacy groups, brands, and consumers have called for safe working conditions, fair wages and environmental regulations.
But even with all the noise, how much has really changed?
At the Sustainable Fashion Forum in Portland, Oregon last week, I had the opportunity to hear ethical fashion advocate Whitney Bauck of Fashionista discuss this question.
One of the largest shifts in the past five years is increased visibility of human rights and environmental abuses within the fashion industry. Movements such as Fashion Revolution, plus ethical fashion and conscious consumerism campaigns on social media on the parts of brands and shoppers, have brought more awareness around the problems caused by fast fashion, and offered solutions to slow down the cycle of consumption.
Over half of millennial and Gen Z shoppers say that would rather buy a product that was ethically produced, which is an indication that the attempts at education have been effective. However, consumer habit statistics paint a different picture. While people SAY they care about ethical production, they might conveniently forget their morals when it comes to the cash register.
In terms of actual policy, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was signed on May 15th, 2013. It is a five year independent, legally binding agreement between global brands, retailers and trade unions designed to increase healthy and safe working conditions within the garment industry in Bangladesh, which is the largest producer of clothing worldwide.
According to Whitney, while the Accord has made safety regulations more enforceable, labor rights issues still have a long way to go. Workers are forced to work long hours for little pay, they are banned from joining unions, and reports of sexual harassment and abuse are rampant. As the vast majority of garment workers in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia are millennial women, ethical fashion is truly a feminist issue.
In all, it seems that the Rana Plaza disaster shook up the fashion industry, increased awareness and demanded reform. However, unless consumers truly put their money where their mouth is, the demand for cheap, trendy clothes will continue to feed the monster that is the fast fashion industry. As a consumer, our individual and collective shopping choices truly do matter. How will you use your purchasing power?