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Three Years After Rana Plaza, Has Anything Changed?

Since the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry, collaboration on safety has improved, but worker welfare lags behind, experts say.
The Rana Plaza factory collapse | Source: Flickr/Rijans
By
  • Kate Abnett

LONDON, United Kingdom — Sunday will mark the three-year anniversary of Rana Plaza, the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry, which killed 1,134 people when a building in Bangladesh housing several garment factories collapsed.

Many saw this event as a wake-up call for fashion. And yet, the industry is still plagued by systemic issues: uneven and poorly enforced legislation on wages, working hours and health and safety; and opaque supply chains, where sub-contracting makes it easy for factories and brands to pass on responsibility for the conditions in which their products are made. The sheer scale of the garment industry — the market for apparel is worth $1.3 trillion and employs tens of millions of people — means the social impact of these problems is vast.

Fashion's environmental record raises more red flags: the clothing industry has been cited as the world's second biggest polluter after oil. Its businesses churn out clothes at an alarming rate — Americans now buy five-times as much clothing as they did in 1980. According to the WWF, it takes up to 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt. And many simply go to waste: in the US alone, 10.5 million tonnes of clothing is sent to landfills each year.

The three years since Rana Plaza, behemoths like H&M, Nike and Kering have ploughed resources into sustainability reports, prizes and projects. Meanwhile, brands including Gap Inc., Inditex and Primark have signed up to the The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, two multi-stakeholder groups set up to tackle health and safety in Bangladesh's garment industry. But how much progress has actually been made?

Last week, an Indian garment factory caught fire, and in February, another fire broke out at a Bangladeshi sweater factory. Other reports this year have exposed forced confinement of workers in garment factories, and facilities illegally employing Syrian refugees, including children.

On the environmental front, long-standing problems remain: twenty-five percent of chemicals produced worldwide are used for textiles, many of which are dumped into the environment after use. New challenges are emerging: in 2014, the US produced 35.4 million tonnes of containerboard, a large proportion of which becomes disposable packaging used in e-commerce, according to The New York Times. And we certainly haven't given up fast fashion, a system which some say is the fundamental cause of problems like poor working conditions, waste, and destruction of natural resources.

Three years after Rana Plaza, has anything changed? BoF spoke to experts to gauge the progress.

Elisa Niemtzow, director, consumer sectors at consultancy Business Social Responsibility

“The Rana Plaza disaster crystallised many of the shortcomings of the fashion industry, including an over-focus on ‘auditable conditions’ without looking at the context and systems around factories — including graft and corruption, land rights and of course in this case, fire and building safety. Since then, the industry has made the most progress on developing more accountable collaboration, which involves strong governance mechanisms, transparency and a systems approach. Both the Alliance and Accord groups born out of Rana Plaza strive for this.”

“Our current mainstream fashion business model hinges on selling customers many clothes, accessories and other products at the highest possible margin. As an industry, we need to re-invent this business model, including innovating for more sustainable and recyclable materials and extending the lifespan of garments through better design, manufacturing and re-use. As a society, we all have to learn that buying too cheaply is a mirage. Good fashion has to come at the right price.”

Linda Greer, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council

“We have finally seen most of the industry recognise that their largest environmental impacts in manufacturing are at their dyeing and finishing mills — upstream of their cut and sew factories. Companies thus recognise that, to meaningfully address their impacts, they need transparency through their full supply chain. This much-welcome shift in thinking comes in part from the deliberations of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which represents nearly 40 percent of global apparel manufacture.”

“Only a small handful of apparel companies factor environmental performance measurements into supplier qualifications and competition for business; issues of sustainability still rest largely in CSR departments, separated from core and daily business decision making. Until environmental impact matters in business decisions, there will be no significant change in the heavy impact of this sector on environment and public health.”

Catarina Midby, UK Sustainability Manager, H&M

“Collaboration with other companies and stakeholders is crucial to creating lasting and industry-wide change… the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety — a joint approach of fashion brands and international unions to make the textile industry safer. This initiative is incredibly important to raise the standard of the entire industry.”

Livia Firth, founder and creative director of Eco Age

“The problem is not sustainability — the problem is the ever-increasing demand for fast fashion. Fast fashion will never be sustainable as its business model is based on producing huge volumes, incredibly quickly, very cheaply so that we can buy more clothes. Fast fashion equals disposable fashion and unvalued lives of the hidden people who work at the bottom of the supply chain. The fast fashion business model also forces factories to use unregulated sub-contractors to deliver to the timescales demanded.”

Amy Hall, director of social consciousness at Eileen Fisher

"There has been a lot of exciting progress made in the area of recycled fibre, from innovators including Renewcell, Lenzing and Evrnu, taking post-production (i.e. factory floor waste) or post-consumer textile waste, breaking it down using a closed loop chemical process, then reconstituting the material into a new fibre, and ultimately into a new fabric. This gives me hope that we will soon be able to 'close the loop' on our products, drastically reducing factory waste and reducing reliance on virgin raw materials."

“Very little has substantively changed for the factory workers. Wages are still obscenely low, hours obscenely high, and overall transparency unbearably murky. What this means is that, as we (apparel brands) continue to drive cost of goods down, the ultimate impact is on the workers, whose base wages have changed very little. As an industry, we need to find a way to decouple cost of goods from wage rates in order to see real progress in the area of worker welfare.”

Diana Verde Nieto, founder and chief executive of Positive Luxury

“I really feel strongly that if retailers care brands will have no choice than to address the issues much faster — most brands are doing something, the problem is the pace. The initiative that I feel most inspired by is Selfridges Buying Better Initiative: their buying ensures that brands meet certain standards on ethical trade, promotes best practice and champions new brands with a sustainable focus.”

“We are yet to see enough evidence of a systemic change. It would be foolish of fashion brands to not include sustainability as one of the hottest topics within the leadership of the company and the chief executive’s agenda. From an environmental perspective, companies need to draw a 2-degree mitigation strategy [to meet the goals agreed at COP21, to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees] in order to de-risk their business and keep the quality of raw materials.”

These comments have been edited and condensed.

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