Fashion Revolution Week: Reflections on consumerism in the midst of a crisis

Words by Rosily Roberts

Fashion Revolution Week happens every year in the week surrounding the 24th of April, the anniversary of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, when a factory making fast fashion in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,138 people and injuring over 2,000 more. It was the fourth largest industrial disaster in history, and the vast majority of the victims were young women. The building’s owners had ignored warnings and complaints from workers after severe cracks appeared in the walls the day before, when an engineer called to inspect it deemed it unsafe; although briefly evacuated, workers were told to return to work on the morning of the 24th. Enquiries into the disaster demonstrated that the building was indeed structurally unsound, not least because it heavily relied on generators that shook the whole building when turned on. It was that shaking that ultimately led to the collapse.

Tragically, Rana Plaza was not the first disaster in a Bangladeshi garment factory; only five months previously, over one hundred workers died when they became trapped in a burning factory on the outskirts of Dhaka. Sadly, nor was it the last.

It’s this that Fashion Revolution Week aims to redress. Although born of the justified outrage felt by the working conditions of people in fashion supply chains, Fashion Revolution Week has grown to include the many other problems both caused by and facing the fashion industry. The fashion and textile sector is the second most polluting after the oil and gas industry, and there remains a severe lack of transparency in fashion supply chains. 

As we near the final bow of Fashion Revolution Week 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic that has undoubtedly caused far reaching destruction for families across the globe, the relevance of such activism could understandably be called into question. However, the message of protecting hard-hit communities is more powerful than ever. The effects of this virus have undeniably been felt by the fashion industry: retailers have been forced to close their doors; all international fashion weeks scheduled for June have been either cancelled or postponed, many turning to digital platforms to present collections; numerous fashion manufacturers have started making much needed face masks and protective equipment for healthcare workers.

While some of these reactions to the pandemic have undoubtedly signalled positive changes for the future of sustainability in fashion, many of them are equally cause for alarm. Firstly, and indeed most urgently, is the question of the health of the people working in the fashion supply chain. In many factories, fashion workers sit at sewing machines with only a one-foot gap between them, so the likelihood of a rapid spread of infection is very high. In Bangladesh, factory union leaders are calling for factories to be closed, but this then presents another problem. For many employees, if they don’t work, they don’t get paid.

Once the coronavirus crisis took hold on a global scale, many international brands that rely on Bangladeshi labour cancelled their orders, including many for garments that had already been sewn; because local factories stopped being paid, they then stopped paying their workers. On the 12th of April, an estimated 20,000 people marched as part of a demonstration in Bangladesh to protest their lack of payment. This, again, poses the question of how safe people are from the spread of infection. After an outcry from union leaders, many international brands agreed to pay factories for garments that had already been produced, but this only serves to scratch the surface of the problem. If the pandemic continues to impact the industry for months, as it looks likely to, workers in factories in Bangladesh and elsewhere will keep having to choose between putting their health at risk or losing their wages.

Many multi-national fashion companies will be able to survive the pandemic, but it will almost inevitably be the smaller, independent companies that feel the immediate effects of the economic downturn. Business of Fashion estimates that revenues for the global fashion industry will shrink by around 30 per cent in 2020, resulting in countless job losses throughout the supply chain, from the people harvesting raw fibres to the shop assistants selling the finished products.

Despite this, buying more is not the solution. The fashion industry is already plagued with an alarming amount of waste due, primarily, to the prevalence of throwaway fashion in developed countries. This pandemic has only amplified the fashion industry’s model of extreme waste and overproduction. According to this year’s Fashion Transparency Index, many large fashion brands don’t currently publish their annual production volume, and the ones that do report eye-watering numbers. For example, Inditex — the parent company of Zara, Bershka and Massimo Dutti — produced over 1.6 billion items last year. Even more horrifyingly, many brands still incinerate their unsold items, a fate that probably awaits many garments currently sitting in closed shops.

As consumers, the temptation to spend lockdown online shopping is akin to that loaf of banana bread staring at us from our kitchen counter — although it may bring short-term pleasure, being mindful of overconsumption is important. One thing we can do is buy less, only buy what we really love and make it last. What the coronavirus pandemic has made glaringly obvious is the fragility of the world that we so often take for granted. Now is the time to re-evaluate the entrenched habits of our society, including the way we buy, wear and consider clothing. Hopefully this enforced global slow-down will also result in the slowing down of the fashion industry, which has been speeding up exponentially for the past few decades.

What we really need is a return to a model which encourages consumers to be more conscious of what they buy, a system that rewards outfit repeating and getting the most out of each garment. If there’s one thing to be learnt from a campaign like Fashion Revolution, it’s that consumer voices can have a huge impact, and it’s vital to use the power vested in each of us by the money we spend — where and how we choose to spend it can contribute to the betterment of the industry as a whole.

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated how easily the economy can be caught off-guard. It now seems that anything is possible. The best place to start is a shift in mindset away from the wasteful overconsumption that has become the norm for so many, towards a style of consumption which grants clothing the respect it deserves, and values the people that spend their lives greasing up every crucial link in the supply chain. We must make sustainability this season’s hottest trend.

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