On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,134 people and injuring over two thousand more[i]. Among other businesses housed within the eight-story complex was a large garment factory. Here a workforce made up of mostly women produced apparel for brands including Benetton, Mango, and Primark.
The collapse of Rana Plaza is considered the deadliest garment-factory disaster in history and tragically, such loss of life could have been prevented. In the lead up to the collapse workers had identified cracks in the building and after a power outage on the morning of April 24, they were reluctant to enter the building.
Despite safety concerns, employees were forced into the building to begin work, a decision allegedly made by managers in a bid to complete garment orders according to deadline. 3,122 workers were inside the building at the time of its collapse at just before 9:00am.
Five years on, the anniversary of this disaster serves as a reminder that many garment workers continue to work in unfair and unsafe conditions, which, in some cases, can equate to modern slavery.
A Changing Pattern of Consumption
Shifting consumer expectations coupled with changing patterns of consumption have created a landscape where the fashion cycle spins faster and faster. While the costs of making apparel have increased, the end price of garments has never been cheaper fuelling the perception that fashion is disposable.
We now find that:
- Global production of clothing has more than doubled since the year 2000 with over 100 billion units produced each year. [ii]
- The average person now buys 60% more clothing and keeps it about half as long as fifteen years ago. [iii]
- Australians send about 85% of the textiles they purchase into landfill. [iv]
Figure 1. Growth of clothing sales and decline in clothing utilisation since 2000
The tides however are changing. In their latest report The State of Fashion 2017, McKinsey and Business of Fashion explain that:
“If 2016 was a year of opposing forces clashing, the push for sustainability was one common thread across the industry. Sustainability is becoming an important new driver of consumers’ purchasing decisions. In emerging markets, for example, more than 65 percent of consumers actively seek out sustainable fashion.”
This increase in consumer awareness has likely arisen due to the wave of initiatives that have sprung up in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster.
Raising Consumer Awareness
As is often the case in times of disaster, a number of initiatives were born to ensure an event similar to what occurred at Rana Plaza never happens again.
Fashion Revolution, a non-profit organisation originating in the UK, continues to demand greater transparency in the fashion supply chain through campaigning and other initiatives. Five years on, the revolution has blossomed into a global movement where millions of people are now asking #whomademyclothes.
Baptist World Aid Australia recently released the fifth instalment of its annual Ethical Fashion Guide published though the organisation’s Behind the Barcode project. The guide is published as a companion to the 2018 Ethical Fashion Report, which grades Australian companies on the policies and disclosures put in place to address the risks of forced labour, child labour and worker exploitation.
In 2017 Oxfam launched the What She Makes Campaign, which seeks to tackle poverty in the fashion industry and ensure workers earn a living wage. In its 2017 What She Makes report, Oxfam revealed that on average, just 4% of the price of a piece of clothing sold in Australia goes towards garment worker wages[v]. Through this platform consumers are able to access information about Australian brands and their transparency, policies and commitments regarding living wage in their supply chain.
Each of these initiatives are targeted at consumers with an aim to educate as well as empower. By harnessing their purchasing power, consumers will be able to encouraging companies to be more transparent about acknowledging and addressing the risks within their supply chains.
Fashion and Human Rights
Earlier in 2018 CAER discussed human rights as a key issue for investors in our Responsible Investment Agenda for 2018. As well as the environmental impact of the fashion industry, unfair and unsafe conditions for garment workers continue to be a problem.
While conditions in many factories have improved since the collapse of Rana Plaza, wages in the garment industry remain notoriously low. In some countries, garment workers can find themselves working under conditions that equate to modern slavery with forced labour and child labour still widespread.
Many Australian retailers still do not disclose the names and locations of their suppliers making it difficult for stakeholders and customers to advocate for fair and safe working conditions. The introduction of the upcoming Australian Modern Slavery Act will establish mandatory supply chain reporting requirements for over 2000 of Australia’s largest companies.
While it is not yet clear how detailed these requirements will be, the Australian Modern Slavery Act will shine a spotlight on company disclosures and the measures corporates are taking to address labour risks in their supply chains.
Circular Fashion in Australia
In March this year the first annual Australian Circular Fashion conference took place in Sydney seeking to repair the state of our local industry.
The event brought together almost two hundred participants from multiple areas of the industry from textile producers, designers and retailers, to investors. Among key speakers were Gordon Renouf co-founder of Good on You, an app designed to aid consumers decide where to shop based on their values, Patrick Duffy, founder of clothes swap organistion Global Fashion Exchange, and Chris Nunn Head of Sustainability Real Estate at AMP.
Attendees were encouraged to work together on practical solutions and to participate in interactive round tables with industry experts drilling down on specific issues. Calls for an Australian industry body supporting the work of ethical and sustainable designers, manufactures and suppliers were strong at the gathering, and we will likely see them put in place over the course of the year.
Strive for Change
For those of us working within the responsible investment industry, we find ourselves in the unique position to look at this issue from both a consumer and an investment standpoint. We encourage you to make the following considerations:
[ii] The Ellen McCarthur Foundation ‘A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future’ (28/11/17): https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/a-new-textiles-economy-redesigning-fashions-future [accessed 26/4/18]
[iii] Greenpeace ‘Time Out For Fast Fashion’ (24/11/16): https://storage.googleapis.com/p4-production-content/international/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/6c356f9a-fact-sheet-timeout-for-fast-fashion.pdf [accessed 26/4/18]
[iv] Jane Milburn, The Textile Beat ‘Aussies Send 85% of textiles to landfill’ (18/9/16): https://textilebeat.com/aussies-send-85-of-textiles-to-landfill/ [accessed 26/4/18]
[v] Oxfam Australia ‘What She Makes – Power and poverty in the fashion industry (Oct 2017): http://whatshemakes.oxfam.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Living-Wage-Media-Report_WEB.pdf [accessed 26/4/18]
Author: Emma Batchelor
Website and Communications Assistant