Last week a building that housed a garment factory, among other businesses, collapsed in Bangladesh. The number of confirmed dead was 359, as of this morning, and though they are still pulling out workers that survived the collapse, rescue efforts are nearing an end as the building is becoming even more dangerous for rescue teams. There are still hundreds of unaccounted for victims, trapped or dead inside. The actual death toll may be close to 1,000 workers.
Reports have surfaced that business owners from the building were warned to keep their workers at home after cracks appeared. Several of these owners have been arrested now for negligence, because they ignored these warnings and forced their employees to come work in the garment factory. What has not been as widely reported, is that employees from other businesses (banking and insurance) in the building were not forced to report to work that day. This is very telling evidence about the type of worker that is exploited in the garment industry and the very little value that is placed on their lives.
While protests erupt in Bangladesh and in the U.S. demanding safer working conditions in the garment industry, it is doubtful any significant changes will be handed down from the government or the industry itself. Garments account for 80% of exports from Bangladesh. Many executives overseeing this 20 billion dollar business are also involved in local politics. In short, the garment industry is "Big Oil" in this region.
The BBC posted an article online asking, "Can Clothes Industry Change?" The answer is, of course it can, by why would it? As long as consumers turn a blind eye to the exploitation of the earth's resources and people groups, why would business executives sacrifice their bottom line? And while Americans are quick to point the finger at obvious targets selling cheap clothes like Walmart or Forever 21, high end labels are actually just as guilty. Their prices may reflect some higher quality fabrics, embellishments and finishing techniques, but they are typically not paying their workers any higher wages than the ones sewing for Walmart.
This is where the post gets preachy, and most people already know what the solution is:
1) Buy less clothing (and fabric!!)
2) When you do buy something, looked for it secondhand or as a remnant first
3) If you have to buy new, support a company that is verifiably doing things right
4) Invest in quality pieces of clotihng
5) Repair/reuse/upcycle what you have
6) Let companies know you expect change and that they have lost you as a customer
Changing an entire industry often feels like a monumental task, but it truly starts with individuals. If there can be any good that comes from this tragedy, I hope it is that more people will consider the ramifications of their purchases, and will change their buying habits.