On 24 April 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-story factory building in Bangladesh, collapsed, killing more than 1,300 people. Today – the first anniversary of the tragedy – has been declared Fashion Revolution Day, an internationally co-ordinated day of commemoration and action. But where will this revolution come from and who should be targeted?
A group of major high-street retailers, even some of those who were producing in Rana Plaza, are – they would argue – leading change in the sector. Many will be in attendance today, at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the industry’s third annual pow wow on sustainability, where, of course, Rana Plaza will dominate. There will be some live streaming here, sponsored by HM, also one of the main Copenhagen Summit sponsors. There will probably even be an announcement or two about the changes retailers are making to ensure a catastrophe on this scale can never happen again.
But has anything really changed? Since the disaster, more than 150 British and 14 American brands, including Mango and HM, have signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord – a legally binding contract between brands, retailers and trade unions in Bangladesh that makes independent safety inspections of 1,000 factories and public reporting on them mandatory. Though the agreement appeared to be a historic moment for the campaign to clean up fashion, complex issues have bubbled to the surface. For example, another alliance of mainly American brands – including Gap and Target – has opted to sign a less stringent agreement instead, with a complicated ideological battle ensuing between the two groups.
I still think there’s a limit as to what can really be achieved within the fast-fashion business model. It’s the ecologist in me but planet fashion looks an increasingly unbalanced ecosystem, lacking in biodiversity. Increasingly, it is dominated by corporate monocultures peddling their own form of fashion and each wants to be the fastest and own the biggest market share. The truth is that many consumers who think they love fashion are in love with a facsimile, fast fashion: a merchandising model that blurs the distinction between garments (basic wardrobe staples with long lead times) and fashion (more complex pieces with short lead times) and is super-responsive to changing trends.
True fashion – with its ability to observe and reflect societal change, to interpret cultures in an extraordinarily creative way, and to mix this with highly skilled garment making – is an impediment to this business model and is therefore under threat of extinction.
There has been no let up in our enthusiasm for fast fashion since Rana Plaza. Yesterday, Primark (one of 28 brands found to be producing in Rana Plaza) posted profits that are up 14% on last year, with the company’s first US stores now on the cards. Even the most right-on fashion buyers can’t quite seem to turn their backs.
So what can we do? I wish I could tell you where, exactly, to shop with a clear conscience on the high street, but it’s impossible to get a full picture. Citing competition laws, retailers do not give full data sets, so examples of costs and margins are still educated guess work. A recent Stern Business School report makes it clear how complex this industry now is. When it comes to protecting garment rights and freeing garment workers from gross exploitation, fast fashion is particularly sclerotic.
Instead, shift your focus to ideas with genuine revolutionary potential. Such as the Fairbuy.org app that claims to allow you to offset the production conditions of fashion items by making a voluntary top-up contribution of 50 cents per piece, which is then donated to a garment workers’ welfare trust. It is based on number crunching on garment worker wages by Nobel Laureate Prof Muhammud Yunus.
Demand slow fashion. Given we’re now in an era when a knicker brand aims to produce 70 collections a year, this is akin to campaigning for the return of the hooped crinoline as day wear. But let’s have a go. Slow fashion – in its various guises from handmedowns to customisation – is the ultimate rebuttal to the excesses of fast fashion. Overall, it would be great to use tomorrow to restore a little sanity to your own wardrobe or knicker drawer. You could begin to differentiate between garments (the wardrobe workhorses you’ll keep for a long time) and pieces of fashion that might move more quickly through your life. You might commit to phasing out disposability: don’t buy anything you can’t commit to wearing 30 times.
I’ve had two epiphanies recently that made me think differently about what I wear. The first was hearing Dilys Williams talking about catwalks the other day: “We only have a mechanism for celebrating the birth of clothes at the start of the life, the catwalk. There’s nothing that celebrates clothing along its lifecycle.” This is something that Kate Fletcher’s Local Wisdom projects seeks to redress.
The second was when I headed into the Brazilian amazon to stay with the indigenous Ye’Kuana community with a Brazilian fashion brand, Aua. Patricia Guerra, the creative director of Aua had spent months negotiating with indigenous communities to work with them on producing designs for fabrics for her collections.
It was painstaking work. “Why do you bother?” I asked. “Because fashion urgently needs culture,” she said elegantly. Yes it does.
And finally, to promote the campaign, Fashion Revolution Day would love it if you could wear a piece of clothing inside out, photograph it and post it with the simple hash tags #insideout #fashrev. The day is the brainchild of Fairtrade hat company owner Carry Somers. She has channelled her passion for a just and sustainable fashion industry into a series of international events across the globe tomorrow. She has persuaded thousands that 1,133 people was too many to be wiped off the face of the earth in the name of fashion without change. She is highly persuasive, which is how I came to be photographed looking ridiculous in my bra for #INSIDEOUT. I hope she can persuade you too to take a good deep look in your wardrobe tomorrow.