This time last year, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,133 workers and injuring over 2,500. The factory was home to manufacturers making clothes for companies like Walmart and Primark, and the tragedy was inextricably linked with the way we live our daily lives, ones often facilitated by super-cheap, super-fast fashion.
Fair trade pioneer Carry Somers is hoping something will change. Today marks the first Fashion Revolution Day, a global initiative that Somers founded to provoke a conversation about where our clothes come from. Somers is organising an international calendar of sustainable fashion events and is encouraging people to wear their clothes inside out with their labels on show and share images on social media with the hashtag #INSIDEOUT. Rather than just being a way of seeing who can actually afford the SS14 collections, the initiative will hopefully provoke consideration for the repercussions of unethically sourced fashion, which are particularly vast for women in developing countries.
“The Rana Plaza disaster was a catalyst for change,” Somers told us. “It has enabled us to create a platform which brings together everyone who wants to see a more sustainable future for fashion.”
It might seem bizarre to be celebrating an industry that was essentially responsible for the tragedy last year (and many more besides). But the conversation around garment manufacture is tied to how we look at fashion, and events like Fashion Revolution Day promotes change where it needs to happen.
Over 80% of Bangladesh’s export market is made up of garment manufacture. Over half that output is then sold to EU countries. Not only are their faceless multinational buyers accountable for ensuring basic safety, but so are we: the people who actually buy the poly-blend t-shirts and runway rip-offs that have made these companies billions.
At the bottom end, the creative industries are less lucrative than ever. It is a bad time to be a journalist, an artist or a new fashion designer: however much we re-embrace the 90s, the glory years of grants and artistic bursaries are over. High street chains are more appealing than ever: they cater to those on below-living-wage salaries with an appreciation for runway fashion. In spite of this, it is important to remember how deeply the high street contradicts the ethics we embrace in our everyday lives.
85% of Bangladeshi factory workers are women. While western feminism is often quick to focus on the inequality around us, there is often a perverse blindness as to the impact of our purchasing power and privilege further afield. When feminist women shop in stores that directly profit from the exploitation of other disenfranchised women, we betray our own politics in a grotesque case of wilful ignorance.
The effects of globalisation are not uniquely a feminist problem, but they play into an international sphere of cultural inequality. The reasons why the significant majority of factory workers are women are not exclusive to Bangladesh: women all over the world have the poorest access to education and the least lucrative jobs. Bangladeshi women are affected by the same endemic stereotypes that plague women everywhere. While the repercussions of those stereotypes are amplified in Bangladesh, they are not original: they are the same reasons that mean women in the UK are paid 85 pence to a man’s pound.
Bangladeshi women have fewer options for employment than their male counterparts; they have to take the jobs that nobody wants, the jobs where their lives are at risk, where they are rarely offered maternity support and frequently face sexual harassment (Action Aid in Bangladesh estimates 20% of women are engaging in sex at the workplace).
But it isn’t quite as easy as just not buying clothes that have ‘Made in Bangladesh’ on the label or abandoning fluro-lit chain stores. Stopping trade with Bangladesh or boycotting organisations that profit from inequality doesn’t mean these women will be able to break free of stereotypes and rise up to claim executive positions, Sheryl Sandberg-style: it means that they will be left jobless and in poverty.
Despite the geographical distance, there are more than a few similarities between us female consumers and a factory worker in Bangladesh. Acknowledging this means we can reframe the problem with a greater sense of global accountability: events like the Rana Plaza collapse aren’t distant ‘third world’ phenomenona.
These are issues that can only be fully resolved by both looking at the supply chains that facilitate our lifestyles and working to promote universal gender equality. We need to remember that feminism is not just for white women and we need to ask for transparency in fashion manufacturing – it’s only then we can address these problems both at their root causes while preventing their dangerous manifestations.
It might be easy to pass off Fashion Revolution Day as yet another date on the philanthropic calendar, but campaigning for revolution shouldn’t be dismissed. Without sounding too much like a hemp-wearing anarchist, it is literally the responses of trend-chasing consumers (that’s us!) that can change these problems. It is not just government legislation that can change the lives of Bangladeshi women, their families and children – it is us, the frequent fashion consumers, that brands are forced to listen to. (Maybe one of capitalism’s singular pros in a sea of cons.)
“Fashion Revolution will challenge the industry to do better, celebrate fashion and spread excitement about the power it has to make big changes happen,” explains Somers. “I hope that by showcasing best practice, we can change lives.”
And if all that doesn’t convince you to reconsider holding yourself and the brands you buy from accountable, then wearing your clothes inside out might make them look like Margiela.
To find out more about Fashion Revolution Day, go to fashionrevolution.org. If you would like to support the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster and their families, you can donate to the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund here.
Follow Olivia Singer on Twitter here @oliviasinger