Five years ago this Tuesday, on 24 April 2013, the lights went out in the Rana Plaza factory in Savar, Bangladesh, and the building collapsed. One thousand, one hundred and thirty-four garment workers – mostly women – were crushed to death. They had been forced to go to work that morning despite warnings that the building, which housed five clothing factories, had cracks and was unsafe. Around 2,500 people – again, mainly women – suffered injuries, many life-changing.
For a few moments, at least, the relentless fashion machine stopped. This was the unthinkable horror story that union leaders, activists and the workers themselves had been dreading. For brands, it was a public day of reckoning. They could no longer bury their heads in the sand and deny that basic worker safety was their responsibility.
Two women who were determined to do something to hold the industry to account were Carry Somers, founder of fairtrade hat brand Pachacuti, and Orsola de Castro, founder of luxury upcycling label From Somewhere and the British Fashion Council’s showcase for ethical-fashion brands, Estethica. With the support of a group of likeminded people from the worlds of fairtrade fashion, policy, education and labour-rights groups, Fashion Revolution was born less than a month after the disaster. The idea was to create a global movement – a revolution, no less – to campaign for a fairer, more transparent fashion industry, one that did not put profits before people and one where a disaster like Rana Plaza could never happen again.
Five years on, the Fashion Revolution campaign has taken over their lives. As Somers is busy preparing panellists, questions and invitations for Fashion Question Time, which has become an annual event at the houses of parliament, she is cautiously optimistic about the future. “The Rana Plaza factory collapse shook the fashion world,” she says. “It ignited the world’s biggest fashion-activism movement for a fairer, safer fashion industry. Since Fashion Revolution started, people from all over the world have used their voice and their wallets to tell brands that we can’t go on like this. And it’s working. The industry is listening.”
Well, what exactly has been achieved?
I asked Nazma Akter. She is a union leader on the ground in Bangladesh. She began working in factories at her mother’s side when she was just 11 years old and joined a union after seeing women workers being verbally abused. She now devotes her time to improving the lot of the Bangladeshi garment worker as the president of the Sommilito Garments Shomik Federation, and general secretary and executive director of the Awaj Foundation, which is a charity to help give women a voice and use it to negotiate a better life for themselves and their families. In the year after Rana Plaza, 20,000 women joined her federation. “Compared to 2013, things are changing,” she says. “I’m optimistic and I hope, in a few years, more than 50 per cent of factories will be unionised,” she says. “It’s a start.”
But there is only so much the workers themselves can do. It’s the brands and retailers and governments that have the power to make real and lasting change. “Everybody has a responsibility,” says Akter. “Brands are asking for good working environment, but they are cutting the price the next order, so that’s why we need transparency.”
Since Fashion Revolution started, people from all over the world have used their voices and their wallets to tell brands that we can’t go on like this. And it’s working. The industry is listening
Ultimately, she says, the reason brands manufacture their clothes in Bangladesh is because it’s cheap. The industry is all about profit and usually that is at the expense of the workers. And for Bangladesh, it’s working. The garment industry there is worth $28bn – second only to China. The monthly minimum wage has been $65 since 2014. “What is the financial turnover in the country,” asks Akter, “and how much goes to the workers? There should be disclosure of information in terms of prices, everything.”
For her, it is about workers’ pay, but also about working conditions. “Quality of life and quality of job has not improved for garment workers,” she says. “Women are not involved in the decision-making, only men, so nobody is talking about the quality of life – working conditions are not changing.”
I ask Akter what we, the people who buy the clothes that are made by the garment workers in Bangladesh, can do. “The consumer should put pressure on all companies to ensure workers’ rights,” she says. “It’s the whole supply chain, from the cotton growing to the final production – there should be transparency and dialogue and no fear. And it is all brands, not X, Y and Z. Even the high-fashion brands are exploiting people.” She says the only difference between the high-fashion brands and the fast-fashion brands is the prices they charge. And the price of a garment has no relationship to the pay of the woman who made it.
That is why Fashion Revolution is keeping up the pressure on brands to make the fashion industry more transparent. What Somers and de Castro began as a reaction to Rana Plaza has become a global movement, with a presence in over 100 countries and a powerful voice on social media, where millions of people have asked the simple question of their favourite brands: #WhoMadeMyClothes?
This week, on the day that marks the fifth anniversary of Rana Plaza, they are launching their first manifesto. “Now is the time for us to expand our mandate,” says Somers. “We will continue, always, to talk about transparency, but that’s just the start of the conversation and we are ready to delve deeper. Revolutions come with manifestos and manifestos incite revolutions. We want our manifesto to motivate as many people as possible, to be riotous, something that belongs to everyone, that defies elitism and that gives us all agency.”
To show your support for a fairer, more humane fashion industry, click on to Fashionrevolution.org from Monday and read, sign and share the manifesto. It’s a small thing that can potentially make a huge difference and make the fashion industry one we can all be proud of.
On Monday, here at The Pool we will launch our Wear Your Clothes week, an editorial series discussing sustainability and transparency within the fashion industry and looking at what we can all do to love, treasure and make the most of the clothes that we enjoy wearing. We'll be celebrating the brands that work ethically, giving tips to make your wardrobe go further and sharing advice on how to look after the clothes you already have. No one wants to feel guilty about shopping, but there are things we can all do to shop a little bit smarter and help turn the fashion industry into a positive place for everyone