ANTWERP, Belgium — Over the past few decades the fashion industry has gone through an impressive transformation. Today, there is an abundance of fashion, available around the globe, in all price ranges. Our dream of globalising the industry has been largely realised. But the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh was a cold reminder for some, and a brutal discovery for others, that the people who had helped us build this dream were living a nightmare.
1,129 human beings died, over 2500 were injured. On April 24th 2013, it wasn’t just a building that collapsed. Our innocence about fashion came crashing down with it. For millions of people, that event has tainted the joy of admiring and purchasing the fashion that once seemed so glamorous.
Worldwide clothing sales have not been affected. But a seed of consciousness was planted that has kept on growing ever since. There isn’t a design good enough to remove the bitter aftertaste of that catastrophe. We want to assume the best about the purchases we make — but now, we know better.
When I was younger, I was fascinated by images of the ateliers of renowned couture houses and all the work that went into the realisation of one design. Those days seem long gone. Companies have moved most of their production to low-wage countries. Brands are operating more efficiently than ever before, producing large quantities at very low costs.
By expressing our values through our purchases, we allowed brands to behave irresponsibly. Through buying their products, we told them we didn’t care.
However, consumer behaviour can become a solution. Money is a language and when spoken fluently, can be a powerful tool for change. Another kind of consumer has emerged: the conscious customer. A clientele that respects craftsmanship, authenticity and transparency. For the millions of people who love the constant newness of fashion, there are others who value the beauty of the story as much as the design itself. A very influential, well-educated minority is demanding humane products and transparency from fashion brands, leading a shift that is happening around the world.
Very few luxury products still carry the traditions that built the reputation of the brand. Often, when told today, the story is no longer credible. There is a need for a new story. An honest one. A smart brand will seize this opportunity to gain a whole new audience.
Today, there is a new generation of fashion brands, driven by designers with a vision of street culture, youth and our future. But what I find most unfortunate is that almost all of them fail to include any notion of sustainability in their production. They are not setting themselves apart from their predecessors; they are not translating their opinions into deeds.
I am cheering for new technologies, such as 3D printing. The day might come that we download the design for a pair of socks and print them out in the comfort of our own home — eventually, such progress might put an end to labour problems.
But in the time that it takes us to develop this, the consequences of our current activities are racking up, as Rana Plaza tragically proved. Consumers need to make better choices and this industry urgently needs to evolve.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.
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