note: I don’t agree with fur being used in fashion (this will make sense eventually)
The anti-sweatshop movement refers to a movement in the 1990s, exposing labour rights violations in the clothing and footwear industry via transnational networks. This movement amassed the support of various demographics and organisations, including religious groups, students, human rights organisations, and activist networks. While previous movements defending labour rights were focused on the actions of governments, this movement primarily targeted clothing companies with public exposure campaigns (Bartley & Child, 2014). By associating the actions of brands to working conditions within their supply chain, this “created a new discourse of corporate accountability” (Quan, 2008), emphasising the complicity of Northern brands in the exploitation of workers, including Nike, Wal-Mart and Gap (Bartley & Child, 2011).
Bangladesh has experienced rapid urban transformation, with Dhaka having emerged as one of the fastest growing mega-cities in the world, and other cities and towns in Bangladesh growing at a similar pace (Hossain, 2016). Urbanisation is now considered an “engine of growth and development” for developing countries, with studies demonstrating the influential relationship between urbanisation and subsequent development, including “socio-cultural and political development of the country”. Such development via urbanisation occurs with industrialisation at the core (Ahmed & Ahmed, n.d.). One major industrial activity that has come out of urbanisation and industrialisation in Bangladesh is the ready-made garments (RMG) industry, which has continued to expand. Indeed, recent studies show that the RMG industry currently consists of roughly 4500 garment industries in the country, contributing 76.3% of Bangladesh’s exports in goods and services, and representing 13.6% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP; Anner, 2018).
On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1100 garment workers, and injuring around 2500. This shocked the world, as the public demanded a change to the working conditions that created this disaster. Indeed, attempts had previously been made to create an agreement to ensure effective health and safety standards, however it was this horrifying event, and increased consumer pressure, that sped up the process, resulting in the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2013).
The Accord is “a five year independent, legally binding agreement between global brands and retailers and trade unions designed to build a safe and healthy Bangladeshi Ready Made Garment (RMG) Industry” (The Accord, 2017). Many say the agreement is a ‘game-changer’ (Hensler & Blasi, 2013), due to unique features not typically seen in corporate social responsibility (CSR) agreements. However, others argue that it is not game changing, as it fails to address the root issues creating poor working conditions. As we prepare for the renewal of the Bangladesh Accord this May, I delve into both arguments.
The Accord is a Game Changer
When brands sign the agreement, they are legally bound to it. This means they must fund inspections and factory repairs, and are responsible for any hazardous factories and their workers (Leibson, 2015). This is ‘game-changing’, as CSR programmes are typically voluntary, with little negative repercussions for brands, so brands feels less obliged to comply with rules (Donaghey & Reinecke, 2017). For example, a comparison is often drawn between the Accord and The Alliance, a CSR-based agreement also drawn up after the Rana Plaza collapse. One report found that despite the Alliance having inspected more factories, fewer factories were closed down (Greenhouse & Harris, 2014). This suggests that potential hazards in these factories were not addressed, demonstrating a lack of compulsion among the signatories to act upon findings.
The Accord also ensures factory inspection results are made public, putting pressure on companies to ensure the safety of their workers, in fear of their reputation being tarnished (Rahman, 2014). Inspections are conducted independently, ensuring brands have no influence over results, which can lead to fundamental issues being hidden by brands. Indeed, last year, Nike attempted to prevent independent inspections in one of their factories, where workers had gone on strike (Jamieson, 2017). Attempts such as these to keep the conditions of workers silent through self-regulated inspections would not take place under the Accord. Moreover, when reviewing reports covering 175 factories covered by both the Accord and the Alliance, while the Accord reports indicated more than half of these factories had not adequately improved, with details describing each situation, the Alliance had marked them ambiguously as ‘on track’, with no further insight (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2016). This ambiguity makes it difficult for the public to know exactly what the conditions of these factories are, allowing brands to hide poor working conditions without fear of being penalised.
There is also a large emphasis on worker empowerment (Donaghey and Reinecke, 2017). For example, Bangladeshi unions were at the forefront of negotiations from the beginning, and form 50% of the core decision-making committee. Many global trade unions argue that previous CSR initiatives failed, due to the exclusion of workers, and that through inclusion, this has created a balance of interests between workers and brands. Indeed, Donahey and Reinecke (2017) found that in important discussions, unions brought up crucial points, including brand responsibility in financing factory remediation and compensation, and raised workers’ complaints. These points, particularly workers’ concerns, may not have been heard without the presences of trade unions. Indeed, Ozkazanc (2018) stresses the importance of subaltern agency, that is, allowing workers to make decisions that influence their lives, as opposed to being silenced and subjugated to Western ideals of how their working conditions should be.
Therefore, in comparison to CSR practices, through increased engagement with workers, transparency, and brands being compelled to act, this agreement could be considered a game-changer.
It is not a game changer
However, it is argued that this is not the case. Indeed, Scheper (2017) argues the Accord does not address the system that allows poor working conditions to exist in the first place, that is, the exploitation of workers in the Global South by corporations in the West for profits (i.e. supply-chain capitalism). He argues that the Accord acts on the basis of this system, further perpetuating the economic power relation between the brand and workers, as brands continue to hold a high stake in how workers’ lives are improved.
Similarly, Ozkazanc (2018) argues the Accord creates a relationship with workers similar to that of CSR agreements, as it continues the “gendered neocolonial relations” that perpetuate poor conditions. This refers to the idea that relations between brands in the Global North and workers in the South via approaches including the Accord are a means through which the North can maintain exploitative relationships, first introduced when the British invaded these countries. In creating a subordinated relationship, where developing countries depend on the North for economic growth, this justifies their entrance into these countries, allowing them to exploit pre-existing gender oppression to extract profit; hiring women on low wages and under exploitative conditions. Thus, by allowing brands to sign up to such agreements, while simultaneously allowing them to maintain these exploitative relations, this could be considered far from a game-changer.
In conclusion, it is clear that the Accord has demonstrated its uniqueness, in that it includes workers, as well as legally compels brands to act. While this has resulted in significant changes that will undoubtedly protect lives, overall, the agreement appears to act as a band-aid to the garment industry. It aims to improve lives without addressing the system that is perpetuating these problems, embedding itself within capitalism and neocolonial relations. As the new Accord is on its way, those involved should address these core issues and how we can dismantle them, so agreements such as the Accord should never have to exist.
[note: I only had 1000 words for this essay, so couldn’t completely elaborate my opinion. I support the Accord, but we also need to look to find ways to address the systematic issues of exploitation]
Brown, H. (23 January 2018) Bangladesh textiles union settles $2.3m safety case, Drapers.
Donaghey, J. and Reinecke, J. (2017). When Industrial Democracy Meets Corporate Social Responsibility—A Comparison of the Bangladesh Accord and Alliance as Responses to the Rana Plaza Disaster. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 56(1), pp. 14-42.
Greenhouse, S. & Harris, E. A. (21 April 2014). Battling for a Safer Bangladesh. The New York Times.
Hensler, B. & Blasi, J. (2013). Making Global Corporations’ Labor Rights Commitments Legally Enforceable: The Bangladesh Breakthrough. Workers Right Consortium.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. (2017) About the Accord. Available from: http://bangladeshaccord.org/ [Accessed 20 February 2018]
Actually let me begin with this disclaimer: ANY CRITICISM I MAY MAKE
ABOUT CERTAIN SITUATIONS/ORGANISATIONS/GROUPS OF PEOPLE IS NOT AN ATTACK ON
THESE PEOPLE AS INDIVIDUALS BUT THE SYSTEM FROM WHICH THEY HAVE DERIVED FROM.
K lets begin.
So I guess you could say I’ve been in/observing the ethical
fashion scene for about 4/5 years now. During my first year of uni I realised I needed to go beyond
complaining about the oppression of garment workers and start acting, and decided to create a blog called Oh So Ethical. My first
thought was to create an ethical fashion blog where I styled outfits I’d made out of
secondhand clothes, and raved about the latest ethical brands I loved (I
cringely called this ‘Fridays Five Ethical Faves’ ffssssssss). After a while I
stopped, but went back into it when my cousins and I realised we needed
somewhere to share our opinions, ideas,and hopefully inspire others to think
and act ethically- and so we rebranded Oh So Ethical and made it what it is today.
At the beginning I tended to place a large emphasis on ethical brands that we liked and bought from. ‘Ethical is the new black’ was my favourite slogan. However, as the years have gone on, and with more interaction with activists, friends, random people I’ve met, and having witnessed the ongoing exploitation of garment workers continue year after year, I have become extremely cynical of the effectiveness of ethical brands, particularly ‘ethical fashion’.
Indeed, through learning from others and seriously thinking about
ethical fashion, questioning whether it is an actual means of empowerment for
workers,and if it will ACTUALLY dismantle the system of oppression, I have come to a conclusion:
I recently read an amazing article in The Guardian by Martin Lukacs, which really helped me understand the underlying processes behind ethical fashion. To sum it up, we live in a neoliberal society, where we are taught to act and thrive individually. When it
comes to activism, we are taught to focus on how we, as individuals, can change
the situation, and are made to feel personally responsible and guilty for the world’s problems.
Due to the guilt created by this individualism,we feel the need to relieve our
guilt by acting in a way that makes us feel better, and as we are seen as consumers (as opposed to citizens) within neoliberal ideology, our means of creating change is through buying and consumption e.g. buying ethical clothing.
While these individual actions are undoubtedly important, by placing such a great emphasis on individualistic activism, we are intentionally being steered away from focusing on the real perpetrators at large: CORPORATIONS- who are out here exploiting workers and the environment, and continue to get away with it. In turn, we are made to neglect the fact that we need to be targeting the root causes of exploitation, including the deregulation of state power that allows corporations to get away with murder, and the capitalist system that puts profits over people, encouraging exploitation and greed. By steering our attention away from such issues, corporations can continue making profits and getting away with their bullshit, while we discuss the pros and cons of bamboo leggings. (see more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/true-north/2017/jul/17/neoliberalism-has-conned-us-into-fighting-climate-change-as-individuals)
Author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion’ Tansy Hoskins provides a similar discourse, adding that we are encouraged to trust in capitalism to make change and better the world; that companies can be made ethical through our consumer actions. However, the contradiction is that corporations have only become stronger and continue to exploit workers/resources, despite their greenwashing and attempts to come across as ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’. More shopping is not going to free workers from this system. By using consumerism as a sole means of empowering workers, we are utilising the very system that has led to the exploitation of workers in the Global South, namely capitalism, without even acknowledging or striving to challenge or dismantle it. (see more: https://oxfordleftreview.com/olr-issue-14/tansy-hoskins-neoliberalism-and-fashion/)
In an insightful article on White Saviour Complex
and Fair Trade, Bani Amor delves into the colonial connotations of attempts to ‘save’ the world via ethical
companies, which are argued to share parallels with the colonial activities of the West going into the Global South and
attempting to civilise the ‘Other’ with its saviour tactics, thus ensuring domination over the GS and its resources, validating supremacy. I’m not saying ethical companies are going to these countries on colonial conquests, but we really do need to understand the historic relevance of colonialism in interactions between the Global North and South such as these. If you go to these countries, get products made, sell them in the name of ‘liberating workers’ while not giving them a say or listening to them, and continue to stay silent on the structural system that has resulted in your existence as an ethical brand, you are falling into dangerous territory.
The article also reviews research on cause-related
marketing, which is basically when corporations and nonprofit charities combine to
promote sales and causes simultaneously. By tying serious social causes such as poverty and exploitation to making profits, this results in the depoliticising and downplaying of such causes, and provides an undignified, extremely
simplified solution to a complex, very dire situation.
Finally, one pivotal point made is the fact
that coloured women, through this process of ‘saviourism’ are made both “hypervisible, but also invisible- ‘seen but not known’”. Their existence is highlighted, but they are simultaneously being silenced, as workers are spoken over, dehumanised and patronised by brands and movements that are supposed to be
‘empowering’ them. (read more: https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/spend-save)
In general, the ethical fashion movement tends to solely focus on how we can individually change the industry and ‘save’ workers in a way that utilises and continues to prop up the very system that is screwing workers over in the first place, conflicting with its ‘empowering’ rhetoric.
Okay so I know I’ve painted a very dull image of ethical fashion, and I know not all ethical brands are the same, etc etc. However, when the industry constantly paints ethical fashion as a positive means to an end, neglecting the issues surrounding ethical fashion, alternative viewpoints are needed.
I get a lot of people asking me for advice e.g. about ethical brands, how to be more ethical etc. Ultimately we want our goods to be made by workers who were treated fairly. Personally, I stick to secondhand- it’s cheaper for me and helps reduce waste in landfill. I do like ethical clothing, and knowing where my clothes/jewellery has come from, but if I do buy ethically I will from now on be seeing what that brand is doing to support garment workers and in calling out corporations, so if you’re an ethical brand prepare for a QnA sesh with ur girl.
One thing I would advise is to not simply boycott the high street- this comes from trade unionists and garment worker activists in Bangladesh. They want to produce garments and a source of income, they just don’t want to be tortured in the process (obviously). At the same time, we cannot deny that our excessive consumption is part of the problem, so if you need a new jacket- please just buy your jacket and not a jacket, 5 tops and 6 dresses because they were half price- really think about your purchases. Being a ‘shopoholic’ is a cute insta aesthetic but its seriously impacting the environment and feeding the system of worker exloitation.
Also acknowledge that a lot of people simply cannot afford to buy ethically, and should not be made to feel guilty for going to primark to buy jeans.
One thing I also really want to highlight, as you would have probably guessed from the blog, is that our activism is not limited to our purchasing. We need to be vocal, we need to be out there demanding change from corporations, calling them out, exposing them etc. Something as little as a tweet, an email, and insta post can go a long way guys. I know its not in fashion to support such movements (pardon the pun) but we really have to keep pushing- we cannot afford to wait for another Rana Plaza for us to take action.
This might piss people off. I’m sorry. But understand that a few years ago I was the same as the very organisations and brands I’m talking about, and it took criticism like this to understand that I needed to rethink my activism if I were to truly create change. Plus, you feel pretty helpless after hearing of a factory fire every other week, another worker protest because factory owners didn’t pay their workers that month, stories of sexual abuse of young females from management, refugees being exploited, masses of workers fainting simultaneously, and NO ONE CARING. Not even the very people who by default should be sharing and raising concerns about these issues. It’s surreal.
We have groups and regular discussions on twitter that enable ethical brands to get together, support each other and discuss how we can promote ethical brands and use them
etc. It’s nice how such elaborate forms of unity can be created surrounding ethical branding but little is done to address the very problems that has led to the reason these ethical brands exist, and how to put an end to worker exploitation. Again, we are
steering towards ‘solutions’ that aren’t actually solutions, but are utilising capitalism
and perpetuating the neoliberal stance that we need to individually create the
BUN THAT SHIT.
Things are going to start changing.
We are not only going to change the world with our individual practices, we are going to change the garment industry
in a way that emphasises our solidarity and support for garment workers,
creating a mass solidarity movement. We are going to call out corporates when we
clock their messy moves and let them know as consumers we don’t f*ck with them unless they treat their workers with dignity.
We are not going to buy our way to change, we are going to collectively DEMAND it.
Today marks the fourth anniversary of an incident that left the world horrified, as we witnessed the deplorable consequences of corporate greed and capitalism.
On 24th April 2013, 8am, 3639 workers refused to enter the eight-storey Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh, due to visible cracks in the wall that evidently posed a threat to the workers’ lives. In response, the owner Sohel Rana, brought paid gang members to beat the workers, forcing them to work, with threats that they would not be paid that month. They reluctantly went in.
At 8:45am, the 8 storey building collapsed.
1,137 have been confirmed dead, with over 200 remaining missing. Tales of workers trapped in the rubble with no choice but to saw their own limbs off to escape, of workers trapped within the collapse for days without food or water, surrounded by dead bodies. Of the families who had to identify their deceased family members, only to find that the bodies had been so deformed by the collapse they were almost unrecognisable. The suffering of the injured workers who are no longer physically capable of working, plummeting them into further poverty. The orphans who lost either one or both parents. The workers who survived, but must face on going psychological torment, as they return to work in the garment factories.
What makes things worse is the amount of pressure required to force retailers whose clothes had been found in the factory to compensate the victims and the families of the victims. Indeed, while some did pay up, others, notably Benetton, required intense pressure from campaigners before they gave in. Why they felt they were in no position to support these families is beyond me.
For the past four years since the accident, activists around the world have marked this day as Fashion Revolution Day, and the week it takes place in as Fashion Revolution Week. During this time, people all around the world ask big businesses who made their clothes, highlighting consumer concern for the workers behind their clothes and the need to hold corporations accountable for their workers’ wellbeing.
Demand for the fashion industry to check themselves has increased, and it is refreshing to see fast fashion corporations becoming more transparent, as well as some improvements being shown.
What I cannot deal with however, is the recurring news stories on factory fires from Vietnam to India, garment workers fainting en masse in Cambodia due to lack of nutrition, exhaustion and sweltering heat, young Dalit girls in Tamil Nadu being sexually exploited and abused through the Sumangali System (an agreement that women work in return for dowry required for marriage), women having abortions or working up til pregnancy to avoid being fired, impoverished communities being struck with high levels of cancer and disease due to corporations polluting their land with toxic materials or compelling workers to use hazardous materials, the cotton farmers committing suicide because they cannot keep up with the impossible debt they are put in.
The worst part? We are all unwillingly complicit in this cycle of exploitation, through a system called ‘fast fashion.’
Fast fashion simply refers to when retailers pick up trends from the catwalk, and push them out at large quantities to consumers as cheaply as possible. However, with trends now rapidly changing faster than ever, due to factors such as instant coverage of increasingly frequent fashion shows and online accessibility to new styles, retailers must keep up in order to meet consumer desires. For example, in Zara, designs will stay on sale for a maximum of four weeks. If Zara launch a particular product that doesn’t sell within a week, it is withdrawn, orders are cancelled and new designs are formulated, further highlighting their dedication to consumer demands.
As fast fashion retailers continue to push out new collections in large quantities and short spaces of time, this creates impossible targets for garment workers to reach in terms of clothes required to be made. This is why retailers aim to set up factories in developing countries, where the impoverished are in desperate need of work, where wages can be kept low, and where laws supporting the rights of garment workers are weak. This allows corporations to exploit workers more easily, with workers being faced with long hours, limited breaks, poor working conditions, poor pay, as well as physical, verbal, and sexual abuse.
As someone who has always loved designing clothes, combining materials, mixing my cultures via fabric, using my wardrobe to express political views- I feel evermore compelled to fight this battle. I love clothes, but fashion is absolute bull. As my fave Tansy Hoskins explained in an article, fashion today is a facade of ‘choice and empowerment’, a beacon of creativity, but intentionally refuses to acknowledge that it is held up by and dependent on the exploitation of the impoverished.
This is evident in the glorifying of fashion on social media. Particularly, it is the rise of the fashion blogger that has made me increasingly alarmed with this lack of accountability the fashion industry gets away with. Every time I see an Insta post with a caption saying something like ‘OMG I’M ADDICTED TO SHOES’ ‘SOMEONE TELL ME HOW TO STOP BUYING CLOTHES’ ‘I CAN’T STOP BUYING CLOTHES’ ‘RETAIL THERAPY’, and all these clothing hauls, it makes me sad that corporations have really worked their magic on us. Through persuading us that the only way we can be deemed as successful, the only way we can be happy, is by purchasing clothes that only provide a short term happiness which eventually fades until we get our next fix of ‘retail therapy’, they are truly feeding on our insecurities and the susceptibility of our subconscious to external messages. I can honestly say, most of this realisation has come from analysing myself and my responses to the world, and trust me it is a constant struggle battling between the messages we receive from society and my own consciousness.
At the end of the day, as much as society compels us to think fashion, style etc is the epitome of social success and happiness, we need to remind ourselves that this mindset is intentional, is a tactical form of marketing, and most importantly, A LIE.
The fact is, no one should have to suffer for me to be able to express myself, to be unique, to be creative, to be able to have a cute insta aesthetic and get bare likes for an ootd. As obvious as it sounds, this is the world we are in.
While I am still unsure as to how exactly we transform the fashion industry (I think about this everyday ngl lol), there is something I am sure of: You need to make your voice heard. Retailers depend on consumers to thrive, so increasing the pressure on these corporations to ensure the wellbeing of their workers is essential. Even simply @ing or emailing retailers like h&m, inquiring about workers rights has a powerful impact, especially if done collectively. In addition, I strongly believe in the impact our own actions can have on changing the world and changing our own behaviours. By reducing the amount of unnecessary clothes we buy, mending or recycling the clothes we have, opting for secondhand garmz or even Fairtrade stuff if u got p, we can encompass a sense of consciousness for humanity with every action we take, allowing our lives to symbolise the world we want to see, and help to actually be the change we want to see. There are also many organisations out here working actively to support garment workers around the world, such as Clean Clothes Campaign and Labour Behind the Label- check them out. I hope, both individually and collectively, we will all take a stand against this consumerist, materialistic society fuelled by capitalism.
Anyway I’m out. I truly hope we can create a world where the greed and ego of the people at the top is overridden by the masses and our desire to care for and protect our brothers and sisters around the world.
p.s. check out some of the events happening for Fashion Revolution Week this week here