The Rana Plaza disaster of April 2013, cited as one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, appeared to produce a short term, intense focus on the inadequate safety standards in the garment manufacturing industry in Bangladesh. The building collapse killed 1,129 people and injured 2,500 more, and the subsequent public outcry prompted many retail giants to re-evaluate the social impact of their use of cheap labour in developing countries.
The phenomenon of “fast fashion”, where the industry produces extremely low-priced clothes that consumers tend to discard quickly, has led to a whole host of environmental, social and economic problems that can only be fixed through an overhaul of the current system. Some have argued that the Rana Plaza disaster represented a turning point in the garment manufacturing industry, while others view the international attention as a short-term media focus that will soon fade. Six months on from the accident, has there been any profound change in safety standards in the garment sector?
The Collapse of the Rana Plaza
The garment industry, worth over £13 billion a year, has benefitted from lax safety standards for many years, resulting in various safety accidents, notably the Tazreen Fashion Factory fire in Bangladesh that killed at least 117 people in November 2012. However, no accident has prompted as much international attention as the Rana Plaza disaster, in which an eight-story commercial building collapsed in Savar, a district in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. The abysmal conditions on these production lines are a harsh truth that many consumers are aware of, but that few allow to deter their purchases. For many shoppers, the combination of low prices and stylish designs are too much to resist.
A revolution within the industry?
However, the Rana Plaza disaster seems to have generated enough attention that retail manufacturers have taken some very promising initiatives. The EU Sustainability Compact, which involved 70 brand signatories working with the Bangladeshi government and the International Labour Organisation, aims to improve the safety standards of garment production in Bangladesh. One of the most important dimensions of this agreement is that it encourages cooperation with officials on the ground in Bangladesh, thereby improving information exchanges between employer representatives and the large retailers in Europe. Additionally, the binding initiative requires companies to pay a lump sum of $500,000 per year towards the programme, and to keep funds in reserve for renovations required for other safety improvements.
However, many North American retailers, including GAP, Macy’s, Walmart and Sears rejected the legally binding Sustainability Compact and instead opted for a non-binding, five-year initiative to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh. The agreement provides for the initiation of inspections of all the signatories within the year and a new published set of safety standards. The retailers who refused to sign the binding Compact claimed that they did not want to be exposed to ‘unlimited liabilities’, as stated by Jay Jorgensen, the head of global compliance for Walmart. These retailers do not believe they have anything to gain by ensuring safety standards in their factories. The media has a short attention span, and many of the harrowing stories from the disaster will soon fade away from the collective consumer memory, prompting a return to the cheap and convenient brands, whether or not they signed the binding initiative. This was harshly demonstrated with the recent limited attention shed on the seven deaths at the Aswad Knit Composite Mills Ltd factory, despite indicating fundamental flaws in the safety standards set up after Rana Plaza.
Power of consumers to change the industry
According to the Department of Ethical Fashion in the International Trade Centre (ITC) in Geneva, the Rana Plaza disaster incited “a huge shift in the expectations of consumers” when it comes to ethical production in the fashion industry. The international response, particularly within social media, has opened a dialogue in which consumers will challenge retailers to provide them with ethically sourced products. Ethical fashion, an increasingly prevalent phenomenon among high fashion retailers, seeks to ensure the safety and the fair wages of those involved in the supply chain. Indeed, the practice of social responsibility can benefit large companies, who see that ethical production can make them more competitive and profitable.
Aside from bringing to light the damaging social impact of ‘fast fashion’, the Rana Plaza disaster has uncovered oft-ignored environmental problems in the ready-made garment industry. Cheap, mass-produced clothes encourage consumer spending, and increase overconsumption and waste in the environment. For example, cotton farming has put enormous pressure on water supplies in countries where the water balance is permanently impacted, in addition to the health impacts arising from the use of fertilizers and pesticides to increase the output of cotton. The Aral Sea, which was diverted in order to grow cotton in the desert, has receded so much that it is known as one of the largest ecological man-made disasters in history. ‘Eco-fashion’ is now on the rise, that is, fashion that has a low impact on the environment – such as sustainably grown hemp, cotton or bamboo.
Consumers must continue putting pressure on these retailers in order to support ethical fashion and effect substantial change. Consumers’ economic leverage gives them the power them to lobby for better and safer working conditions for Bangladeshi (and other disadvantaged) garment workers, as well as to encourage heightened safety standards across the garment industry.
 “Walmart, Gap Announce Bangladesh Factory Safety Plan With Other North American Retailers,” REUTERS, 10 July 2013
 “American retailers’ plan for Bangladesh factory safety branded a sham,” THE GUARDIAN, 10 July 2013
 Interview conducted at the Department of Ethical Fashion in the International Trade Centre, Geneva
 Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry,” ENVIRONEWS Environmental Health Perspectives, September 2007 115 (9), ENVIRONEWS by Luz Claudio