About six months ago I was scrolling through my Netflix suggestions and saw the thumbnail for a documentary called The True Cost. I am a big fan of social documentaries, so I decided to give it a try. What I learned about the garment industry shocked me and forced me to permanantly change my buying habits.
Today is the five year anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy that killed over 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh and wounded over 2,200 more. The Guardian reported that "since the fatal collapse, considered the world’s worst garment factory disaster, many workers have been found to still work long hours in overheated factories without proper fire exits, according to two reports from the alliance of research and advocacy groups looking at the working conditions within the supply chain at H&M, Gap, Walmart and others."
Most garment workers are young women and many make less than $3 a day. For most, this is not a living wage. Because they cannot provide for themselves or their families on this wage, "many garment workers are forced to work long hours to earn overtime or bonuses, and they cannot risk refusing work due to unsafe working conditions or taking time off when they are ill. The low wages also mean that workers often have to rely on loans just to make ends meet and have no savings to use if they find themselves out of work or faced with unexpected expenses."
Cheaper overseas labor and materials has made the cost of clothing go down for Americans. Because of this, fast fashion has taken over stores and buying cheap, inexpensive clothing has become the norm. But where does this clothing go? According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator." On top of that, only 0.1 percent of all clothing donated to charities or buy-back programs was recycled into new textile fibers. And even if your clothes are made of natural fibers, they won't compost like food products. They have been bleached and coated with chemicals that can seep into the water supply.
What We Can Do
Some will argue that the garment industry has improved the lives of workers in poorer countries and given them jobs. While there is some truth to this, it doesn't mean that we should force human beings to choose between starving to death and being crushed in a collapsing building. I also am not arguing that companies shouldn't source their materials or labor from other countries where the labor is cheaper. I am arguing that companies should ensure that their production practices are ethical. And many won't do this until they're forced to (i.e. government policy) or we, as consumers, demand change.
When I first decided that I wasn't going to buy from brands that weren't transparent about their production practices or who openly do not have fair trade agreements, I was sad. I am a normal American woman who loves to go into Target for toilet paper and leave with a new outfit and many other unneeded items. In order to feel motivated to say 'no' to these products, I had to change my mindset. When I am tempted to buy a cheap shirt that was made in Bangladesh, I remind myself of who probably made that shirt, what her life is like, and what I want to her life to be like. Then I remind myself of all of the other ways I could purchase a shirt that will support that girl's fight to have a living wage and safe working environment. Finally, I ask myself if I actually need that shirt. The answer is usually 'no'.
The more that I've looked into ethical fashion, the more that I find lots of other people who want the same thing. I discovered Fashion Revolution, a fashion activism movement inspired by the Rana Plaza factory collapse. They are celebrating Fashion Revolution Week this week (April 23-29). During this week, ask yourself: “Who made my clothes?” And then most importantly, ask the brands and retailers you buy from. Post on social media with the hashtag, #whomademyclothes. Some brands won’t answer at all. Some might tell you where your clothes were made but not who made them. Some will direct you to their Corporate Social responsibility Policy. That’s not good enough. Keep asking until you get right down to the factory where your garment was made or even the name of the person who made it.