Rana Plaza disaster: how can we move forward?

Following our interview with Muhammad Yunus, DiA blogger Louisa Jones asks what consumers can do to make the fashion industry more ethical in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh

Victims of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. Photo by Asitimes/ Creative Commons

Victims of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. Photo by Asitimes/ Creative Commons

On the morning of 24 April this year, Primark reported a stellar 55% increase in first half profits to £238m. Set against an otherwise deflating retail industry, the clothing giant was hailed by the press as an international success story. By the evening, the Rana Plaza factory complex had collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 workers. The cause: a cocktail of safety infringements including an illegal two-storey extension built atop marshy foundations. Among the factories’ clients were Mango, Benetton and Primark.

The scale of this tragedy has forced garment worker exploitation back to the forefront of public debate. In the 20 years since the first sweatshop stories emerged in the 1990s progress towards equitable treatment has crawled. Two years ago a blaze in a Bangladeshi factory supplying a number of retailers including Walmart killed 100 workers, while Primark itself was caught out in 2008 when children were found to be hand embroidering its garments in India. Only last month, raids on one of Zara‘s Argentinian factories revealed a workforce of undocumented migrants working for more than 13 hours per day.

The garment industry is a key driver of GDP for many developing countries. But for this economic gain there is a social cost. Relentless competition to slash costs in the global supply chain frequently result in cut corners on the factory floor, giving many workers – the majority of them young women – no choice but to sacrifice their basic rights in order to scrape a living. Can we really call this development? Why is such an unethical business model allowed to continue?

Although some fashion brands operate corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives to soften their impact on local communities, a more dramatic shift in behaviour is only likely to occur if it involves a financial incentive. And when it comes to maximising shareholder profit, the current method of outsourcing the manufacturing process is hard to beat.

Primark stocks produce made in the factory which collapsed. Photo by Gene Hunt

Primark stocks produce made in the factory which collapsed. Photo by Gene Hunt

Many national governments want to keep it this way, and refrain from introducing protective legislation in order to win favour with industry giants. In 2010-11, demonstrations demanding higher minimum wages in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Lesotho won trifling concessions, but not before facing fierce reprisals from their administrations, including protester arrests and the trial of union leaders. The monthly figure demanded by Bangladeshi workers – 5,000Tk (£40) – was only a fraction of the 12,250Tk deemed fair by the Asia Floor Wage campaign.

However, the main reason that worker exploitation continues is because we, the consumers, allow it. While products bearing the certification of Fairtrade, Freedom Food and Forest Stewardship Council have become mainstream in the UK, a recent opinion poll quoted in Retail Week revealed that 44% of Britons are no more likely to question the origin of their purchases now than before the Rana Plaza disaster.

Why this apathy? First, there is a physical disconnect between the squeaky clean shopping experience (complete with slogans such as “White Stuff: happiness in every stitch”) and the somewhat grittier realities of production. Second, as one customer out of millions, it is easy to feel fatalistic about the ability to make a positive difference and to just give up trying. Worst of all, fashion is a culturally ingrained addiction. With trends changing by the week, for many of us the pressure to keep up to date is just too strong to resist.

But we can change all this. Fashion companies will only produce what we are willing to buy, so we need to take action to make our expectations clear. There is no cure-all solution to becoming a more ethical consumer, but following the suggestions below might help:

1) Inform yourself. Although some brands publish their sourcing policies online, transparency is a huge issue. Write directly to head office, or better, consult an independent buying guide such as those compiled by Behind the LabelEthical Consumer and Made-By, which rate companies against a set of socially and environmentally orientated criteria. Check also whether your favourite brands belong to the Ethical Trading Initiative, a DfID-funded alliance of more than 70 UK retailers, trade unions and NGOs working to improve industry standards.

2) Decide your strategy – While boycotting the worst offenders may make you feel better, donating your time or money to a pressure group could ultimately have a greater positive impact on workers’ lives. On the other hand, switching to sustainable clothing companies such as People Tree should, in time, help alternative supply chain models to improve, expand and hopefully become more attractive to conventional brands. ETI, Clean Clothes Campaign and US-based International Labor Rights Forum all provide excellent resources to help decide the best approach for you.

3) Act creatively – Other ideas to consider include buying second-hand and vintage clothing, or even making your own! Though currently a niche market, buying British may be a way of ensuring factory standards while helping to revive a once proud national industry.

The Rana Plaza disaster, while appalling, has finally provoked some of the fashion industry’s biggest players into action. With scores of companies signed up to the new Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord (supported by the ILO) and the UK’s Development Secretary Justine Greening urging British stragglers to follow suit, perhaps stakeholders are beginning to realise that labour is a not an expendable commodity, but a community with needs and aspirations. At the other extreme of the supply chain, we shoppers can exert our combined influence through the power of the purse. And together, one day, we will rid the world of one of globalisation’s most dirty by-products.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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