Remembering the Rana Plaza

By Melissa Watt |

Rana Plaza building collapse | rijans/Flickr

Nothing exposed the failures of fast fashion like the news of the Rana Plaza factory collapse. Today marks the 7th anniversary of the tragedy.

On the 24th April 2013, the Rana Plaza – an eight-story commercial building in Dhaka, Bangladesh – collapsed, killing 1,138 garment workers, and injuring 2,500 more.

The previous day, employees had alerted management about the cracks that were appearing in the factory’s structural foundations. In a catastrophic move, the employees were ordered back to work the following day, with some managers threatening to withhold earnings if they refused.

The reality was that the pressure to complete orders for fast fashion brands had taken precedent over innocent lives.

Because so little was known about which brands were producing at the Rana Plaza, rescue efforts included the search for incriminating clothing labels amongst the rubble. Fast fashion labels were found littered in the debris, making the likes of Primark, Mango and Matalan all complicit in the fourth deadliest industrial disaster on record.

Factory fires and health hazards continue to plague the fashion industry

In a globalised world, the supply chain has become inherently fractured as cheap, exploitative labour is competitively outsourced to countries with lax labour laws. Outsourced orders are then often again subcontracted, which means the various manufacturing stages take place across multiple factories. This makes it extremely difficult to trace where our clothes are being made.

While we’ve not seen anything to the same scale since, Rana Plaza wasn’t the first or last garment factory disaster. Just five months before, 117 workers died in a factory fire at Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka. Less than a month after the Rana Plaza factory collapse, five more were injured after a factory caught fire just miles away. In 2012, over 300 people were killed in Pakistani factory fires. The emergency doors had been locked, preventing garment workers from fleeing the flames. Sadly, the list goes on, as factory fires and health hazards continue to plague the fashion industry.

Thousands of garment workers and their unions rally on the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,100 garment workers | Solidarity Centre/Flickr

Fashion Revolution Week launched on the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy to commemorate those who had lost their lives in the name of fashion. Now a fully-fledged, momentous movement, Fashion Revolution is campaigning for a fully transparent fashion industry. The global campaigners believe that greater transparency makes it easier to hold brands to account, which will eventually bring about systemic change.

As the Rana Plaza showed, a lack of transparency can cost lives. The fracturing of the supply chain means that the majority of our clothes are made by workers labouring relentlessly in unsafe conditions for poverty wages. They are often forbidden from unionising, instead subject to routine verbal and physical abuse.

Fashion Revolution launched the #WhoMadeMyClothes initiative to encourage consumers to directly contact their favourite brands about their business model and labour practices. The hashtag is also a reminder to appreciate the true value of our clothes and the immense skill and handiwork that went into making them.

Fashion Revolution are the authors of the Fashion Transparency Index, of which the fifth annual edition was published this week. The index is a comparative tool which ranks 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers ‘according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts’. It reported a 12% increase in global transparency since the 2017 edition.

The average brand scored 23%, while more than half (54%) of the brands scored a mere 20% or less. 10 brands shockingly scored 0%, including Tom Ford and Pepe Jeans. H&M ranked the highest at 73%, and was the only brand to score over 70%.

The report also highlighted the tendency for brands to publish more about their policies than ‘their outcomes, results and progress in addressing the social and environmental issues in their supply chain’. So, while slowly increasing global transparency may be cause for celebration, we clearly still have a long way to go.

There has been some industry change, however. Following successive events in Dhaka, two safety initiatives were launched to tackle industry hazards. The first was the legally blinding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which boasts over 200 signatories, including H&M and Zara’s parent company Inditex. The second was the less committed Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which was signed by 28 companies including Gap, Target and Walmart.

Both initiatives were designed to radically improve health and safety conditions across 2,300 factories throughout the co-signers’ supply chains. This incentivised factories to invest in fire safety measures, structural evaluations and electric upgrades, or risk being dropped by their western buyers. This has reportedly eliminated over 97,000 safety hazards in factories covered by the Accord alone.

Though, in these unprecedented times, the immoral practices of fast fashion have once again returned to the surface. Following economic uncertainty amid a global health crisis, many brands are resorting to cancelling already-processed apparel orders. According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, 1,145 factories reported cancellation of 980 million units of work orders worth $3.17 billion. This has resulted in over a quarter of Bangladesh’s garment workforce becoming unemployed or furloughed. In response, the #PayUp petition was created to lobby guilty fashion labels into honouring their commitments and paying their suppliers.

So, not all that much has changed then? Combined, the Rana Plaza and global pandemic have made it painfully clear that garment workers continue to be the most vulnerable and worst hit in the supply chain.

It is within this fashion climate that I am writing my first post as fashion editor, so let me introduce myself. I’m Melissa and I have a huge love-hate relationship with fashion. On the one hand, I admire fashion as a craft, as an art form, as a vehicle of expression, as a form of employment, and as a practice as old as time. On the other hand, I can no longer ignore the rampant labour exploitation and environmental degradation which the fashion industry too often depends on to thrive.

Going forward, this section will be dedicated to tackling the major issues in the fashion industry. From gender inequality and microplastics to body image and working conditions, fashion certainly has a lot to answer for.

The fashion section will therefore endeavour to showcase community initiative and the local designers who are facing the crisis head-on. The fashion section is committed to sparking topical discussions and invites our readers to envision a fairer, cleaner industry together – one that is as accessible as it is expressive, and one that champions both the planet and the people.

Because if the legacy of the Rana Plaza teaches us anything, it’s that fashion should never be ‘to die for’.