In 2013, a garment factory called Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed. The factory was constructed with “substandard materials, with a blatant disregard for building codes,” according to the New York Times. Despite knowing the factory was unsafe for garment workers, factory owners urged their employees to continue working in the building, with the approval of the Mayor of Dhaka. On April 24, 2013, the concrete slabs crumbled to the ground, taking more than 1,000 lives in their wake—the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry.
With over 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh—which supply clothing to the top five brands and retailers in the world—the Rana Plaza disaster only scratched the surface of the unsafe conditions many garment workers face daily. The disaster also called the fast fashion industry and consumers around the world to action, and many ethical fashion brands beckoned consumers to ditch fast fashion and start thinking consciously about where they shop.
Additionally, the disaster called attention to the low wages many garment workers are given in return for their backbreaking work. Wages of workers in the fashion industry are as low as $1-$3 per day, according to Awaresy. In countries like Taiwan and China, similar factories exist, all of which export goods to the Western world to satisfy the feeding frenzy that is fast fashion.
Lea Hart, John Brown University junior psychology major, said, “I am very passionate about ethical fashion. I think that in America we retreat on this idea that we can just buy another. That is not the reality that a lot of us live in. If you cannot buy clothes that can last, then buy clothes that are used. They have already lived their life with someone else and you give the piece of clothing a new purpose.”
Fast fashion brands such as Forever 21, Gap, H&M, TopShop and Zara “are able to capitalize on trends through their supply chains. The fast fashion model is a streamlined system involving rapid design, production, distribution, and marketing,” according to a study by Bard College. Fast fashion makes clothing more accessible by giving a low-ticket price to the clothing. This, however, comes at a high cost to garment workers and the environment.
Kayla Huff, Director of Marketing and Development at Healing Waters International, said she realized she could not truly fight to end the Global Water Crisis and other social issues if she did not also fight for ethical fashion, “Fast fashion factories will dump chemicals into the water sources that the local communities drink out of. On top of that, the amount of water it takes to produce one cotton shirt could provide water to a person for two and a half years.”
Not only that, but the fashion industry uses enough water in apparel production each year to reach the equivalent of 32 million Olympic swimming pools, according to The Green Hub. “It takes around 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to produce just one pair” of blue jeans, according to a study by Penn State.
Doug Nystrom, Director of Human Rights at Walmart, said that consumers carry a large part of the responsibility when it comes to ethical shopping. “There’s a lot of research consumers can do on their own around what companies are doing. As a consumer, I wouldn’t look for the perfect product but for companies that have systems in place that are actually trying to do the right thing. Because sometimes I think we start to think about this whole area as either/or,” Nystrom said.
“Say the consumer had the expectation, ‘Well, there should be zero forced labor in this product,’ and say there was found to be that. If we had the expectation of zero forced labor or zero violations of the facility, that’s a good expectation, but what should a company do when they find it?” Nystrom said. He suggest that, “there be some sort of a working with that facility, with that supplier, to enact change. That’s really what’s going to benefit workers in the end—not walking away from facilities but changing them. I think, as a consumer, it’s having that understanding.”
Hart said that ethical fashion is often expensive and intimidating to college students, “A lot of the time when I hear or see ethical fashion, I think expensive. Most of the clothes that you can buy that promote ethical fashion are very expensive for a college student: range from $70-$200 per item.”
Thrifting is Hart’s solution to ensuring she is making conscious decisions as a consumer. “I choose to thrift because I love shopping, but I have a budget that leaves little to no money for clothes. It puts the fun back in shopping for me, plus I love knowing that I step away with a great piece at a great price. This past year, I have also began to take a step toward ethical fashion and the concept of a capsule closet—limiting your closet to 30 pieces of clothing. Thrifting is an excellent way to promote ethical fashion because by thrifting you are choosing to step away from fast fashion.”
Nystrom said he hopes brands will partner together in the future to create change faster. “I think collaboration is huge. I think it’s just really important. If Walmart says something, people may think, ‘Well, you can change everything.’ But you can’t because the bad suppliers will just go supply to somebody else. It takes a big effort to make these changes. In order to do that, you have to have more unity. I see that improving, to be honest, I see it growing around forced labor and recruitment in particular. A lot of people just saying, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves, forget any differences, and talk about how do we tackle this, lock arms, and really fight it.’”