BY VALENTINA HERNÁNDEZ
Sunday, November 25, 2012. The firefighters couldn’t stop the fire from spreading. The majority of fatalities were female workers. At least 120 workers perished due to a huge fire in a nine-story textile factory located in Dakha, Bangladesh. Besides, the number of injured people rose up to 300. That factory was one of the 4,500 ones that were affiliated with brands such as H&M, Marks & Spencer, and J.C. Penney, in an industry that makes up to 80% of the Bangladesh annual exports.
Thursday, November 3, 2016. Another fire is happening in yet another factory; at least 13 people are killed.
The latter factory declared publicly in September 2014 that they were adapting their structure and their production processes to the standards of the brand (H&M). They were even awarded due to their high proficiency in industrial security.
Other brands affiliated with the before mentioned manufacturing plants such as Walmart and Sears defended themselves by affirming that they did not know whatsoever of the conditions in which the workers were operating. Here lies the question of whether companies should be held accountable by their entire supply chain, since they should meet certain obligations and responsibilities.
Despite all these tragedies and facts being well-known to the public through the media, Primark's utilities rose 25% in the following months.
Nonetheless, these kinds of “accidents” open up a debate about sustainability as an inclusive term. Its transversal nature permeates the authorities and the working standards throughout the entire production chain.
From an ecological perspective, things don’t look hopeful either. The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in terms of gas-emissions. These stats have direct consequences upon the ecosystems, such as water pollution – wastewater contains toxic elements; water consumption – for example, cotton crops need lots of this precious liquid; disposal of waste and microfibers in the oceans, and waste accumulation of unused and old clothes.
These two main problematic points inevitably make us question if the fashion industry as we know it could become truly sustainable. Let's start with the most basic question: what is sustainability? Brands and fashion houses have been profiting off of this widely-used term as a way to gain publicity and sell their products. But what does it mean, exactly? As defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (1998) sustainability is about "meeting present people’s needs without compromising the ones of future generations".
The own logic of this industry implies transnational operation throughout the supply chain; therefore, the headquarters rarely are in the same location as the rest of the production factors. This structure starts to unveil the "profit over life" mindset that big corporations have at their core. To illustrate this idea: one could have cotton crops in India, and then export this raw material to Bangladesh, to be treated and tailored in a maquila – where the working situation, as we have previosuly exposed, is decadent and barely human. Lastly, the final product will be sent to different countries through air travel, which emits high emissions.
After having analyzed this overview, it seems obvious that the current state of fashion is far from meeting the before mentioned definition of sustainability, neither in the human dimension nor in the environmental aspect. Human sustainability should ensure decent working conditions and fair wages, but none of those aims are a reality for the maquila workers, mostly located in under-developed countries, where labor laws are less cost-demanding for fashion brands.
The complex structure of an inevitably transnational industry makes the regulation process even harder; diverse legislation comes together in one transaction. This is one of the main dilemmas when it comes to making corporations accountable for the conditions that workers have to bare in every part of the production chain. Being either high couture, prêt-à-porter, or fast fashion, brands of every category seem to be acting without real parameters and real consequences.
As the law has been proven to fall short on the demanding need for transformative action of fashion production and marketing, it's now the time to take important steps towards a bottom-up change in the industry. Every single customer is making an ethical and environmental decision when purchasing an item from a determined brand.
To start making better decisions for workers, for the environment and for our future, education seems to be the most important tool. Below are some resources for our readers to educate themselves and take tangible steps toward a slow but sure transformation of this industry.
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- If sustainability is really the future of fashion, why are Primark's profits soaring? The Telegraph UK: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/brands/sustainability-really-future-fashion-primarks-profits-soaring/
- Perceptions and attitudes towards sustainable fashion design: challenges and opportunities for implementing sustainability in fashion found in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education https://doi.org/10.1080/17543266.2019.1572789
- Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand clothes (2015) a book by Andrew Brooks.
- Zero Waste Fashion Design (2016) a book by Timo Rissanen and Holly McQuillan.
- The true cost. Documentary; it can be found on Netflix.
- Straight and Curly podcast, Episode 144- A Beginner’s Guide to Sustainable fashion.
- Sustainable World Radio podcast, Episode: Clothes and Climate: The Environmental Cost of Fast Fashion.