This Sunday marks the third anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh which killed 1,133, injuring 2,500 garment workers, most of whom were women. In the wake of the disaster, Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers (who have both run their own ethical fashion labels) founded Fashion Revolution. The organisation seeks to challenge the fashion industry to provide greater transparency, safer work places, fair pay and to address the rising environmental repercussions of the extreme levels of garment production.
The underlying question must surely be: does anyone care about this? The economic titans of retail, attached to their buoyant profit margins at any cost are one thing. But add to them a Verruca Salt demographic existing in a constant state of want, purchasing items because of their low cost rather than whether they’re required. Clothes have become a dangerously disposable commodity.
On Monday in Westminster, the Fashion Revolution collective staged "Fashion Question Time" to debate this crisis of ethics. Led by Labour MP Mary Creagh, with a panel including Livia Firth, founder of sustainability brand consultancy Eco-Age, and Jenny Holdcroft, policy director of IndustriALL, whose work involves implementing the Accord on Fire and Safety Building Safety in Bangladesh, the voluntary agreement signed by 90 global garment brands in the wake of the disaster.
When asked how much has changed in the last three years, the findings were not particularly encouraging. Livia Firth said, “brands are still acting with impunity, they’re doing a lot of cosmetic work but none of the groundwork. When I spoke to garment workers at the Rana Plaza memorial last year, they said there was no difference to their working conditions.” Jenny Holdcroft explained that while the accord had raised awareness, “we have to change the entire industry. It’s not within the capacity of a single company to change it”.
The driving force of the problem is the systemic issues in the supply chain. “It’s so complicated, so it’s always someone else’s responsibility," an exasperated Firth said. "They don’t want to change the industry, because if we all stopped buying clothes they would lose profits.”
To try to establish a better dialogue within the industry, they have launched the Fashion Transparency Index, which (available to view online) features 40 surveyed brands from Prada to Primark and its findings on their supply chains. Disclosure did not come easily: out of the 40 brands surveyed only 10 answered their questionnaire, with some claiming competition as an issue for their reluctance to reveal how and where they manufacture.
The highest scoring include H&M which recently launched it's "Consious Collection." While such so-called halo-effect offshoots of a fast fashion brand provoke some cynicism, it’s worth noting that the company is doing more in this area than other low cost retailers. Other high scorers were Levi Strauss & Co and Inditex (Zara, Massimo Dutti, Uterqüe).
Stripe bateau neck box top, £140, u-neck long tank, £85, wide leg pant, £175, backpack, £230, double sandal, £135, Eileen Fisher
Beyond this, there is the issue of women. The garment industry offers crucial work, yet it is too often dangerous, debilitating, in some cases enslaving work. Firth quoted the founder of ethical fashion label Edun, Ali Hewson, '“We wear the stories of the women whose clothes we wear.”’
Fashion Revolution ask that you buy nothing unless you will wear it at least 30 times. That might seem paltry, but look at every single piece in your wardrobe and see if you can meet their challenge. Then question, who made my clothes? The answer is something we must all demand.