10 years have passed since this tragic event, and though much has evolved the question still remains: Are our cultural values preventing true change in the fashion industry?
This week marks the ten year anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, in which 1,134 people were killed and approximately 2,500 more were injured in a catastrophic factory collapse.
The incident, which occurred on the 24th of April 2013, was a result of structural failures in a building that was extended four floors beyond the original permit with the use of subpar materials, and had been also converted into an industrial garment factory instead of the commercial space it was designed as. It is largely considered the deadliest garment factory disaster in history.
Ten years on, we are left with the question – has anything changed? Has the fashion industry taken the opportunity they were presented with to truly reassess their supply chains, their manufacturing policies? Is the legislation that was put in place effective and legally binding?
Immediately following the disaster, there were a number of legal inquiries made (including a murder charge for the owner of the building). An ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’ was proposed and met with mixed responses and signatures from retailers and companies.
Since then, legislation has been proposed and introduced across Europe, including in the EU, while new state laws are both in effect and in progress across the US. However, these are very recent laws, and the only one currently included in legislation in the US impacts factories and workers based in California only. It is by no means globally comprehensive.
Indeed, the past few years and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the continuing risks and unsafe working conditions for garment workers globally. A number of studies have been carried out, all with the similar conclusions – from the cancellation of contracts and retailers refusing to pay for costs, to the closure of factories and subsequent worker lay-offs, as well as inefficient COVID protection, the garment and fashion industry has not improved much in the last ten years. In an industry where on average 80% of workers are women, and with the pandemic exacerbating existing inequalities, it is no surprise that such was the outcome.
There is most certainly a sense of shortcoming in all of this. The emergence of the sustainable fashion industry, as well as the recent growth of the second-hand and vintage clothing markets, would suggest that there is a demand for change within the fashion industry, but in the last ten years, we have not seen much of a manifestation of tangible change. Fast fashion retailer Shein reported profits of 1.1 billion US dollars in 2021, and have projected their annual revenue to reach almost $60 billion by 2025.
Thus, we are left with the question of why have we not yet seen that change? The harms of such an industry are no longer hidden from the general public, and although they can often be inaccessible in terms of price point and size ranges, alternatives do exist. Why are we still seeing thousand dollar Shein hauls on TikTok?
There is an argument to be made here that the root of the problem is ideological. As a society, our cultural values and beliefs are often most evident in the things we do, in our actions, and the continued prevalence of fast fashion is indicative of the ways in which practices of consumption, born out of a history of global exploitation and imperialism, have firmly embedded themselves within our collective unconscious.
Most of us objectively know that fast fashion is not good, but in a way that speaks to our current post-capitalist moment, there remains a certain cognitive dissonance between what we objectively know and the ways in which we do or do not recognise that knowledge.
The lack of substantive change in the fashion industry in the last ten years is indicative of a larger cultural zeitgeist that no longer values craftsmanship and well-made objects when we measure success in terms of competitive overconsumption, a display of who can have the most played out over TikTok and YouTube hauls.
However, many of those same fast fashion companies reported declines in profits last year, with Shein down from the aforementioned $1.1 billion, to a mere $700 million. UK retailer Missguided went into administration last year before it was bought out by the Frasers Group. Is that simply a product of the current cost of living crisis, and the inconsistencies in the online clothing market as a result of COVID, or are people finally starting to wake up to the realities of fast fashion? The rise of sustainable and ethical fashion would certainly suggest so, but if we are to see true, lasting change rather than more greenwashing, fast fashion must be unpicked at its core, where our cultural values continue to support it.
There is an opportunity here, not only to prevent further factory disasters and treat garment workers fairly, but to ensure our fashion industries do no more harm, to people and to the planet.