By Lauryn Power, G&A Institute Analyst-Intern
The issues of sustainability and just labor rights in the fashion and clothing industry were brought to the world’s attention in April 2013 by a tragic event in Dhaka, Bangladesh. On April 23, 2013, cracks were found in an eight-story factory building known as Rana Plaza, which hosted factories for many different industries. Many workers were sent home.
Then, on April 24th garment workers and managers were fighting over whether workers should go into the building and work. Workers were threatened with withheld pay if they did not work that day, so they ultimately went in.
A few hours later the building collapsed, killing over 1,100 people and severely injuring over 2,500.
The Rana Plaza collapse stands as a turning point in how the fashion industry worked with their supply chains. For decades before, incidents and disasters had been coming to light with little worldwide recognition or change on the part of clothing and fashion brands, which had a ‘don’t ask’ policy.
This event shifted the world’s attitude towards brands’ unwillingness to check their supply chains and forced them to take a more active role in how their supply chain is run.
Those workers were killed in the name of “cheap clothing.” Rana Plaza was found to be overcrowded with people and machines, set up in dangerous locations threatening the structural stability of the building. Over 29 major fashion brands were implicated in this incident. The entire world was watching this event unfold and raised questions of who is to blame and how this could have even occurred.
Soon after the collapse, Bangladesh instituted the Accord on Fire and Building Safety which over 200 brands signed. It set up plans for stricter fire and safety inspections, compensation from brands to improve factory conditions, banned brands from working with factories that did not comply, and set up anonymous reporting for workers.
28 major fashion brands came together to form the Alliance for Bangladesh Workers and set action plans for new inspection training and protocols.
Both of these accords did make major changes to factory standards, and over 130,000 safety violations were uncovered and corrected. Many factories had to provide more unobstructed ways of exit and were forced to remove gates which had been in place to keep workers on factory floors. Over 50 factories were shut down completely, and these initiatives protected over two million workers.
While these programs made major changes for garment factory workers, they often seemed more like bringing these factories up to the bare minimum standards. In the years since, many non-profits and other organizations have centered their goals around providing factory workers with just labor rights and supporting those in need.
Fairtrade International is one of the most well-known nongovernmental organizations working towards “just labor rights.” This organization is co-owned by more than 1.8 million farmers and workers who strive to ensure that consumer goods across many industries are made in accordance with rigorous ethical standards.
Their key priorities span across all workers’ rights including child labor and forced free labor, mitigating climate change impact for workers, decent livelihoods, protection of the environment, and gender equality. Thus, they implement strict standards for all products which attempt to be Fair Trade Certified™.
For textile certification, workers must be paid living wages, understand their legal rights to allow them to unionize, have elected representatives to voice concerns, have safe working spaces, and have reasonable working hours. Fairtrade works with hundreds of fashion brands including Ralph Lauren, PACT, Patagonia, Athelta, and J. Crew.
Many other organizations were founded to focus on one specific issue within the garment industry. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) attempts to unify all these issues and help brands track and fix them within their own operations. Their goal is to develop a sustainable consumer goods business model based on collaboration between organizations and expert leadership.
SAC works with Higg Co and the Apparel Impact Institute to set their foundations and goals for brands, using the Higg index which takes into account many factors including climate change, water and chemical usage and just labor rights. SAC has many partners including Allbirds, Everlane, LL Bean, Levis, New Balance, Patagonia, and Walmart.
Even more organizations are seeking to force brands to focus even deeper into their supply chains by checking fiber source and hazardous chemical use. While not impossible, certain standards are difficult for brands to enforce.
For example, paying living wages is often restricted by the local government’s minimum wages. Also, many factories are producing garments for multiple brands so even if one brand was willing to simply pay more to ensure living wages, it may not be enough to cover the costs for the other brands. There is also no way of ensuring that money will filter down to workers. As a rule of thumb, consumers can look for brands who do work with Fairtrade International and SAC; I see this as a good way to try to ensure certain worker standards are being met.
Labor rights in Bangladesh have come a long way since the tragedy, but injustice is still occurring everyday. The Rana Plaza collapse wasn’t the first labor rights disaster and it likely won’t be the last. With globalization, it is easier for these types of critical issues to slip through the cracks, so there is still a lot of work to be done to create equitable and just working conditions globally.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lauryn Power is a G&A Institute Analyst-Intern, currently pursuing a MS in Sustainability in the Urban and Environmental Planning department at Tufts University. She has a BS in Chemistry from the University of Virginia where she also earned a minor in Mathematics. She also received a certificate in Business Fundamentals at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia.
She has worked in various chemistry research labs and has a scientific background on climate change. She also has experience in sustainable fashion. She interned for the U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce doing research on current issues with fast fashion globally.
Through her educational background and experiences in the industry, she hopes to work in the intersection of sustainability and business, helping corporations to improve their practices and find ways to make their business more sustainable.