When Cheap Fashion Kills, How Do We Go Forward?
This week marks the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. On April 24, 2013, a decrepit eight-story factory collapsed on the outskirts of Dhaka, killing 1,133 garment workers, injuring 2,500 (including at least 800 children), and leaving many trapped under the rubble for days.
At the time, “CBS Evening News” anchor Jim Axelrod asked me why such a tragedy might seem so remote to American consumers. I answered that, yes, the people who died lived far away, but we need to recognize that they were making the clothes that millions of Americans wear. As a result, we owe it to them—and to our own apparel industry—to take responsibility for the factory regulations and working conditions of manufacturers around the world.
What set the stage for the Rana Plaza disaster has been the ongoing demand from large retailers such as Walmart, Target, Kohl’s and Forever 21 for disposable products manufactured at ever-lower cost. Manufacturers have adopted this pricing model, and in the case of textiles and apparel, followed it to countries like Bangladesh, where wages and workplace standards in garment production remain extremely low.
This race to the bottom of a competitive global marketplace led to some of the inhumane safety standards subsequently documented at Rana Plaza, where many employees routinely endured an 8 a.m.-to-midnight work shift, seven days a week, for salaries equivalent to $31 per month. On the day of the collapse, employees were required to report to work despite concerns about a large ceiling crack, which, it turned out, had rendered the building unsafe.
If there is any helpful news that came out of the disaster, it’s that the fashion industry has become actively involved in efforts to pressure apparel brands to pay compensation to Rana Plaza survivors. There has also been a concerted push to adopt the Bangladesh Safety Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding independent agreement holding more than 150 retailers to safe conditions in Bangladeshi workplaces. But these steps have been tempered by more recent incidents such as the ceiling collapse of a Cambodian shoe factory that killed two workers, and the failure of retailers like Gap and Walmart to sign the actual accord.
The question now is what Americans can do to actively combat inhumane working conditions. One surprising solution is that apparel manufacturing is returning to America for the first time in a generation, thanks to increasing consumer demand. In time, re-shoring of garment production could also have ripple benefits abroad that include moving to more sustainable production practices, better wages, and safer workplace conditions as a means to compete with concerned U.S. manufacturers and a more outsourcing-wary U.S. public.
Why is U.S. apparel manufacturing making a comeback? In part because U.S. fashion sourcing has become accessible to a new generation through virtual maps of manufacturers, fabric/trim suppliers, printers, and more. Emerging designers have also learned that reducing financial and ecological waste in the production process is a smart, practical way to do business. Bottom line: By reducing transportation costs, eliminating international legal and customs fees, and negotiating partnerships with nearby suppliers, locally made fashion has become advantageous.
Many U.S. consumers have also become ill at ease with the notion that their clothes may have been produced by child labor. This shift in mindset has helped drive the burgeoning Made-in-USA renaissance, and consumers are also finding that high-quality clothing is worth a slightly higher price.
One year after the Bangladesh disaster, America stands poised to send a message that labor exploitation in unsafe factories is no longer an acceptable model. Paying garment workers a living wage in the U.S. can provide leverage for overseas workers who deserve the same treatment. And because smaller designers are now demonstrating the successful bottom line of local sourcing, larger corporate brands may well be compelled to improve production quality and safety overseas, or to move some production back to the U.S.
As the Rana Plaza disaster demonstrates, safety and sustainability in apparel manufacturing must go hand in hand.