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21 Apr

Rana Plaza – the Day the Fashion World Changed

When an eight-story building collapsed in Dhaka in 2013, killing 1132 garment workers, we all felt uncomfortable. All of a sudden the clothes we had on took a different form. The soft fabric against our skin became heavy, itchy, suffocating. Because while we watched limp, sooty figures being carried from the rubble, we realised that there were faces, families, and stories woven into what we wear. All of a sudden we were asking, who made my clothes?

The Rana Plaza collapse will be remembered as one of the worst industrial disasters in history. But more than that, through the awakening so many of us felt in the days and months following, it has become the catalyst for a revolution…a Fashion Revolution.

Making the invisible… visible

The fashion supply chain is complex, murky, and shrouded in a lack of transparency. Forced labour of adults and children in Uzbek cotton fields, poisonous toxins in tanning yards, cancer from cotton pesticides in India, and the millions of workers exploited with cheap wages and long hours; these are the results of fast fashion. These are the people wearing the weight of our clothing on their shoulders. And most of this is happening out of sight and out of mind, hidden in the developing world.

The rise of fast fashion

The rate at which we consume clothing has increased exponentially. A few decades ago we would buy one coat and wear it for 20 years. Today, it is not uncommon to buy an entirely new wardrobe every season. What we would’ve spent on that one jacket two decades ago, wearing it for several years, we now spend on several new items every few months, at least.

In the 1980s and 90s, retailers shipped manufacturing offshore where wages were cheaper and labour laws could be exploited. Brands and companies have capitalised on this, pushing profit margins lower than ever before. A t-shirt can be made for as little as fifty cents and catwalk trends now hit stores within days. No longer does the fashion season consist of two collections per year. New collections hit stores weekly, and last month’s ‘old’ stock receives hefty discounts, or ends up in landfill.

Welcome to the era of fast fashion.

This is why we need a revolution

Rana Plaza shook many of us out of our fast fashion daze. Our globalised world and modern technology showed us the suffering of the people sewing our jeans, lining our jackets, and stitching our buttonholes. Suddenly, it didn’t make sense that we would only buy free range eggs because we couldn’t stand the thought of chickens suffering, but so easily ignore the suffering of those who made our clothes.

That fateful day reignited a conversation about the social responsibility of clothing companies. There were rumblings of this movement in the 90s when Nike and GAP were exposed for using child labour in sweatshops. But the conversation had stalled somewhere in the mid-2000s as fast fashion brands increased in size and offering.

When consumers become citizens

But what has emerged from Rana Plaza and the sustained conversation about fashion is a movement against this. A growing cohort of consumers who are behaving as citizens; people who are no longer satisfied with opaque supply chains, the unethical treatment of people, and the pollution of our environment. More than ever before people want to know the dirty little secrets behind the brands, and who they can buy from with a clear conscience.

Hundreds of apparel corporations from around the world have signed the The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The Accord ensures factories receive independent inspection and public reporting of the results. Many retailers, like Uniqlo’s owners Fast Retailing, were initially reluctant to commit to a binding agreement.

But as consumer voices gained momentum, their demand for companies to do better won out, and more and more retailers have since committed to better working conditions for their workers. (Uniqlo has since signed The Accord).

And whether or not it concerns Bangladesh, consumers more than ever want to be aware of where their clothing comes from and who made it. That’s why we started Good On You. We wanted to give people the information they want—when they need it—so they can be more informed about the story behind their purchases. By bringing together a range of research and ratings, we analyse and give brands a simple rating so that we—conscious consumers—can make informed decisions and be a part of the global movement.

What still needs to change

The Accord has done a lot to give consumers confidence that brands they regularly buy from are taking the Bangladeshi safety issue seriously. But many garment factories are still uncertified under the scheme, so the problem is far from solved. And while the minimum wage has gone up dramatically, it’s still the lowest in the world. It’s still just as important as ever to ask “who made my clothes?”

We stand with Fashion Revolution and thousands around the world who are working hard to spread the word about conscious consumption. Find out about some ways you can get involved during Fashion Revolution Week each year towards the end of April. Like avoiding a cheap burger because we know it’s not going to nourish our body, consumers are opting to invest in timeless pieces, pay a little more, and take an interest in the health of their clothing. And as the momentum builds, a change will certainly take place.

3 simple changes you can make now

Don’t restrict your fashion revolution to one special week each year. Here’s some simple ways to be a more mindful shopper in your everyday life:

Editor's note

Images via The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and Joan Subirats. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 2,000 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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