We all took a sharp intake of breath when news broke about the collapse of a building in Bangladesh on April 24th 2013.
A building that contained thousands of workers who earn less than £1 per day, upon who we rely to make our clothes. 1138 people died that day and more than 2500 were injured; 800 children were left orphaned. Consumers started to ask questions like “where are my clothes made?” and “have I bought anything that is linked to the disaster?’ And despite numerous building catastrophes that have killed and injured thousands of innocent people over the last decade, companies took note. They too took a sharp intake of breath and felt shame; some even took responsibility.
It was clear that action needed to be taken now and that this issue would reach the hearts and minds of even the shoppers who only have budgets to buy items worth a few pounds. Some high-end designers had already spoken out about ethical fashion and sustainable supply chains, such as Emma Watson, Vivienne Westwood and of course Stella McCartney. But this time it was different. This time the high street was being held to account. They were being reminded by the now infamous image of the couple who were found embracing when they died under the rubble that day. A day the world would not let the high street forget.
So a year on, what has changed? Did we carry on buying in the same old way and let the companies get away with murder and forget the change that we called out for?
Firstly, the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord was established and some companies signed up and contributed to the fund that has paid out thousands of pounds in compensation to the families who have lost loved ones, especially those orphaned by the disaster and those that have had to find a new way of living with their injuries. Some companies took their time and needed a bit of poking by campaigners before they signed-up (H&M); sadly some companies have signed up but are yet to fully pay out compensation (Benetton, Mango, Bon Marche, Matalan, Primark); shockingly some are yet to do either (GAP & Walmart).
Secondly, and possibly the most important positive that has come out of the disaster, is that the Bangladeshi government has changed the law to allow garment workers to form trade unions without prior permission from factory owners and, in November, the minimum wage was increased by 77 per cent. This means that the workers are empowered to stand up for what they believe and bring about change themselves. The accord also requires businesses to commit to properly inspect factories and provide financial support for improvements as well as, critically, compensating workers while the work is being done. Additionally 5000 factories are being independently audited and given democratically elected worker participation committees as well as access to an anonymous worker helpline.
This is all great progress, but is it enough?
Fair-trade pioneer Carry Somers and fashion activist Lucy Siegel and Livia Firth don’t think so. They have declared April 24th an annual Fashion Revolution Day (FRD) - for which people all over the world will be encouraged to wear their clothes inside-out. “We want people talking about the provenance of clothes,” says Somers, “raising awareness of the fact that we aren’t just purchasing a garment, but a whole chain of value and relationships. FRD will become a platform for best practice – for brands to show off what they are doing to improve things.”
Cate Blanchett says that garment manufacture demands the same attention as climate change. “If you offer options then it’s not sacrifice, it’s choice,” she says. “As well as the fundamental improvement to our spiritual health, buying with conscience is about the option to buy something for £1 that has the potential to blind 15 children as a result of an inhumane production line – or something else for £1.50 that will have a positive effect. Like climate change – we need to change the way we consume fashion. And if more individuals do then we make a change collectively.”
Emma Watson said ”I’ve travelled to Bangladesh and visited factories like Rana Plaza, I knew how bad the conditions were before the collapse. ‘I think it’s important that I’m accountable for the choices I make and understand they have serious consequences.”
So in Wales, the world’s 1st Fair Trade Nation what more can we do? The Welsh Government is currently drafting a bill on Sustainable Development, currently titled ” The Future Generations Bill” and using the hashtag #thewaleswewant. Surely now is the time for us to stand by our vision and ensure that all our nurses, doctors, schools, canteens and workers uniforms are sourced ethically and sustainably? If you think this is the way Wales can play its role in ensuring Rana Plaza never happens again, then please let them know here http://www.thewaleswewant.org/
So on the 24th April 2014, let’s all wear our clothes inside out. Wherever we are, let’s ask questions. Let’s Be Curious, Let’s Find Out and Let’s Do Something. This way we can highlight those companies that are doing well and inspire others to follow suit. It’s a fitting tribute to those 1138 men and women, and the families they left behind.
Please tweet using the following hashtags #insideout #fashionrevolution #thewaleswewant #fairtradenation