On April 24th, 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, became the site of the worst tragedy in the history of the fashion industry. The building, which housed several garment factories supplying high-street fashion retailers including Mango, Matalan and Benetton, collapsed. 1,134 people were killed, and over 2,500 injured.
When the story broke, brutal images of young women trapped under rubble and bloodied survivors shocked the world, and statements of remorse spilled out of spokespeople for Primark and Bonmarché, both of whom were supplied by the factory at the time of the disaster.
And yet, justice has not come. The fashion brands implicated have faced no criminal charges or punishments of any kind and efforts to compensate the victims and their families have fallen far short of their targets.
How could this have happened?
In the year since Rana Plaza collapsed, fresh scandals involving the fashion industry have peppered the news. Alleged cries for help from workers found stitched into the labels of Primark’s clothing; Bangladeshi garment workers resorting to hunger strikes over outstanding salaries. Have we forgotten the appalling incident at Rana Plaza in the face of more recent scandals? And why have the fashion brands implicated still not been held accountable?
Following the tragedy, the Rana Plaza Arrangement set up a compensatory scheme to protect victims and their families who had lost a family member or suffered life-changing injuries in the catastrophe. Claims for compensation received by the RPA were to be funded by the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, a money pot “open to contributions from any organisation, company or individual.”
This is where the problems begin. The fund was “open to” contributions – it did not demand them. The UN agency International Labour Organization backed the fund, yet did nothing to enforce payments into it, despite having a long list of the companies who used the factories. There was no organisation, institution, or law to make sure this fund was filled. And as a result, it wasn’t.
The Rana Plaza Arrangement estimated that the fund would need to collect $40 million to cover the expected claims. As of 4 August 2014, the current total is just under $17.9 million; the fund is not yet half-full.
Fashion companies’ reluctance to offer compensation has been astounding. UK clothing retailer Matalan, who admitted to using the factory the month before it collapsed, paid into the fund one day before the deadline for payments. It only did so after tens of thousands of people lobbied the retailer via emails and calls, and Twitter users bombarded the brand with over 1,000 tweets an hour.
When Matalan finally did pay up, it was clear that the brand did not accept any responsibility. "We wish to make it clear that we have never been ordered by any organisation to pay compensation or been found culpable for the tragedy,” said Matalan's chairman, Allan Leighton. “However, our company is happy to continue to make substantial contributions to help the people who need it most." Other brands have been less “happy” to pay. Neither US retailer JCPenney or Italian multinational Benetton have contributed, despite clothing destined for their shop floors being found amongst the rubble of Rana Plaza.
This incident makes clear that the fashion industry has a serious problem of accountability. JCPenney and Benetton were responsible for Rana Plaza. So were Primark, Mango, Bonmarché, Monsoon Accessorize, Walmart, Joe Fresh, and all of the fashion companies who had clothing manufactured there. Using third parties to manufacture goods is common practise in fashion, but multimillion-pound brands such as these are still responsible for properly investigating and monitoring their third party contractors.
The day before Rana Plaza collapsed, inspectors found cracks in the building and raised the alarm. Did these warnings reach Benetton and Primark? They certainly reached the banks operating in the Rana Plaza building, which evacuated all of their workers. The garment factories, by contrast, forced employees to return to work, their managers threatening to withhold a month’s pay from those who didn’t. Either the fashion companies didn’t know about these dangerous working conditions; or they did, and they allowed the factories to resume business. The former is negligent and poor supply chain management. The latter is far worse.
Fashion brands can be held accountable for their products – customers can return items that don’t perform as they should, faulty products can be recalled from the shop floor – but regulating how goods are made is a more complex task. What can be done to make sure powerful fashion brands manufacture their products in a responsible way, and are forced to pay – not politely asked for contributions – if they don’t?
One solution is a quality assurance standard, comparable to the ISO 9000. ISO 9000 is a management standard in the manufacturing and service industries, which assesses not what is made but how it is made. Organisations can receive the certificate only after an extensive assessment by representatives of the International Organization for Standardization. There are incentives for companies to comply to such a standard – ISO 9000 certified companies generally report superior returns on assets and perform better in the stock market than non-certified companies.
The point of ISO 9000 – and why it is something the fashion industry could benefit from – is to allow companies to use the services of third party contractors and be confident that they are run correctly and safely. This is not a perfect solution and would require huge investment to implement. Who would oversee such a certificate is up for debate and the scheme would have significant hurdles to overcome, not least the difficulty of gaining access to secretive production facilities in the developing world. According to the Ethical Fashion Forum, ethical labeling initiatives like Fairtrade "only cover the cotton production process and do not provide fair trade guarantees for the garment production phase." There is no global standard covering the entire fashion supply chain.
The Rana Plaza compensation fund has not succeeded. But what is more worrying is that the tragedy was not prevented in the first place. Fashion should be subject to regulations and scrutiny, like any other industry. It must protect the workers at every link in its supply chain and there must be serious consequences for companies who fail to do so.
As it stands, the actions of fashion brands have huge costs. And the wrong people are footing the bill.