Three years on from Rana Plaza, is there anything to feel good about?

We may be increasingly aware of sustainability and fair trade credentials, but is ethical fashion a myth?

The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh three years ago made international headlines and caused outrage among Western fashion consumers. While many of us were already aware of places called ‘sweatshops’, the scale of this tragedy, in which over 1100 people died, sparked fresh debates among consumers, fashion brands and retailers about the human costs of the fashion industry.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was established – an agreement between apparel companies and unions requiring assessment of factory safety standards. While almost 200 companies have signed on, there are still some high-profile retailers, like US giant Walmart, who refuse to do so. And although independent audits have meant the closure of many unsafe factories, they haven’t always been replaced by safer factories, leaving factory employees with no guarantee of returning to work.

A focus on fire and safety has also meant less attention to other forms of systemic worker abuse. Garment factories in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia are hostile to collective action and workers’ efforts to unionise are regularly met with physical and sexual violence. Widespread worker protests in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster led to an increase in the minimum wage in Bangladesh by 75%, but this is still estimated to fall far below a decent, living wage. Factory managers have also tried to compensate for these increases by forcing employees to work more unpaid overtime.

Many fashion brands have responded by stating their commitment to improving labour conditions. Last year David Jones pledged that all of their products will eventually be sourced ethically (although there was no timeline attached to this promise). H&M, one of the pioneers of unsustainable ‘fast fashion’ industry practices, is now trying hard to rebrand themselves. Their yearly ‘Conscious Action’ reports detail plans for improving their records of fair wages, human rights and environmental responsibility. This year they launched World Recycle Week, to coincide with the third anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, encouraging consumers to return and recycle unwanted clothes. With the help of a promo video from MIA, H&M want you to know it’s okay to keep shopping because they’re ethical now.

Despite H&M’s efforts to improve their image, 52% of the safety improvements recommended for its supplier factories are behind schedule because these factories aren’t actually owned by H&M. Even for massive players like H&M fashion supply chains are too complex to intervene in directly. Patagonia, an accredited Fair Trade company, recently discovered that the textile mills where the raw materials for their garments come from rely on human trafficking. If brands that are dedicated to fair labour practices can’t be held responsible for how their clothes were made, I can hardly be blamed for the $8 pair of New Balance rip-offs I scored at Kmart.

But is ethical fashion really a myth? There are now hundreds of independent designers worldwide who are working with smaller supply chains and collaborating directly with textile co-operatives who provide workers with sustainable livelihoods in decent conditions. The willingness of these brands to experiment with alternative, and less harmful, models of fashion production might pave the way for less exploitative fashion futures.

The last decade has seen an explosion in the number of brands claiming ethical credentials. Championed by designers like Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney, ethical fashion is now fashionable; it no longer means scouring an Oxfam catalogue for a hemp tote bag. This new generation of ethical fashion designers reminds us that we don’t have to compromise on style to do the right thing. We might have to spend more money doing it, but it’s now possible to feel good about fashion.

But are fashion conscious consumers with enough disposable income to buy ethical really the answer? We’re still buying more clothes than ever before. Ethical fashion is fine, but what about shopping less, or only ever shopping second-hand, or – gasp – not really caring about fashion at all?

The idea that we can shop our way to social change is great news for companies like H&M. It also probably overstates our own importance as consumers. Believing that we simply need to reform ourselves into more ethical shoppers individualises a complex, global problem, but also distracts attention from the activism of workers themselves. We reiterate the idea that the women working in Bangladeshi garment factories are docile and passive, a belief that serves the interests of those who profit from their exploitation.

It’s tempting to emphasise the voicelessness of workers because it highlights our own importance as agents of change. We want to feel like we’re making a difference and, preferably, to look good while we’re doing it. Meanwhile, the abuse of workers’ rights continues. 

Rimi Khan is a researcher and lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Melbourne.

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