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Bangladeshi Factory Disasters: Coming to an Australian Store Near You

Fast fashion is similar to fast food. Except, instead of screwing with your insides, it causes people in other parts of the world to work in shitty, sometimes deadly conditions.
May 3, 2013, 7:23am

Mango. Primark. Benetton. They may sound like fashion labels worn by a topless American jock or a baby prostitute, and to an extent that’s probably true. But they’re also brands that form part of a larger global movement currently targeting shoppers in the west. Unfortunately for some, behind the sparkly new stores and racks of cheap clothing, there’s an industry even more distasteful than the synthetic clothing sold by some of these retailers.

This reality was highlighted last week, when a garment factory outside Bangladesh’s capital city collapsed while 2,500 people were inside it. Despite warnings of cracks in the building’s foundations, these people were sent to work that morning on a $38 a month wage, so they could make clothes for a factory that supplies Mango, Primark, Benneton, and other fashion labels worn by people on the other side of the world.

The Rana Plaza disaster has been widely reported since, with many Australians glued like stick-on-nails to the rolling footage of bodies being pulled from the rubble. A week later, at least 620 people are confirmed dead. It is unlikely that any of the hundreds still unaccounted for will be found alive, despite the countless hand-drawn “Missing Persons” signs plastered near ground zero.

Further describing the sheer horror of this tragedy is difficult. What wasn’t difficult, however, was predicting that it would happen. Less than six months ago, over 112 died while making clothes for one of the world’s biggest retailers, Wal-Mart, after a fire ripped through another factory outside Dhaka. Bangladesh, the world’s second largest garment market after China, is a literal hot spot for disaster. The fuel firing this state of affairs is something dubbed “fast fashion”.

For the uninitiated, fast fashion is a 21st century production trend practiced increasingly by retailers globally. Some of its biggest proponents are probably lying crumpled, stretched out of shape, and smelly on your bedroom floor, including Topshop, Zara, and H&M. Largely reliant on quick, cheap, and uneducated workforces in developing countries; fast fashion has reduced both production times and price tags to new lows.

While Australian retail is behind on this trend, that’s changing as international brands flood to our market. Zara and Topshop are two retailers that have opened much-hyped flagships here in the last two years, and there are countless fast fashion online retailers significantly targeting Australia. Mango is also teaming up with David Jones to push its product later this year, although the local department store is “concerned” about that friendship post-Dhaka. Others, including H&M and Uniqlo, are set to arrive here in the next year.

Many Gen Ys and members of the local press (disclaimer: this includes me in my job as a retail journalist) have been hyping up these brand’s arrival. This is understandable. Fast fashion, as its name alludes, is like junk food: it’s cheap, low-quality, and tragically tasty. Buying it is like scoffing a greasy Big Mac at the end of a boozy night. It fills a void only until morning, when you inevitably awake with a hangover to realise that you’ve bought pink creepers.

This can be an addictive shopping cycle for some, as highlighted by the numbers. Almost 80 billion fast fashion items sell yearly. Mango sells 30,000 pieces of clothing an hour, but that’s nothing compared to Zara or H&M. This means big bucks, even though some fast fashion items sell for the price of a sandwich. Wal-Mart alone netted US$443 billion last year. Another linked to Bangladeshi garment factory disasters, Primark, raked in AU$5.45 billion; Mango, a comparatively paltry AU$2.6 billion.

We only need look through our wardrobes to realise how these unfathomable numbers are possible. A decade ago, most labels dropped two collections a year. Today, we expect stores to have new stock ASAP, sometimes several times weekly in the case of Zara’s customers. Retailers not doing this have faced sluggish sales in Australia the last few years, so peer pressure to adopt the model is high among profit-chasers.

Enter Bangladesh, along with China, Cambodia, India, and a few European and South American countries (including Argentina, which last month was linked to allegedly “degrading” conditions in Zara sweatshops). As fast fashion has evolved, tracking clothes back to these various garment exporters has become difficult. In 2013, there’s a web of steps between clothing and the people making it. This mess can be boiled down to this:

Worker - Factory owner - Subcontractor - Even bigger subcontractor - Retailer - You

Things get tricky when the number of subcontractors – middlemen that do a retailer’s wheeling and dealing in local markets – is infinitely multiplied, as with most big supply chains today. Subcontractors also confuse things further by sourcing off each other. This means it’s difficult to blame anybody in particular when shit hits the fan, as it so spectacularly did last week.

Since Rana Plaza collapsed, there’s been a deluge of differing opinions over who should answer to the hundreds of children now without mothers or fathers. Journalists like The Guardian’s Susanna Rustin and The Daily Life’s Alecia Simmonds have put forward compelling cases for “the role we all played” as consumers driving demand for fast fashion. Others are calling for the blood of the factory’s owner, Sohel Rana, a weasel of a man that shot town after his building collapsed, before being caught on Sunday.

All of these arguments are valid. It is especially worthwhile considering the endemic corruption that makes Bangladesh’s garment industry so deregulated. But there’s something dissatisfying about blaming ourselves, a lowly factory owner, or a developing country with a GDP one quarter the size of Wal-Mart’s annual net. It feels a bit like blaming the local dealer or junkie for his habit, while some kingpin chills out by the pool in his Columbian villa.

As with all good detective work, to find the drug lord of fast fashion, you only need follow the money. But holding a retailer liable once you find it isn’t that easy.

When faced with responsibility, most brands point elsewhere. Blaming rogue subcontractors is excuse #1. This was Wal-Mart’s tactic last year when 112 died making clothing for its “unauthorised” subcontractor, Tazreen Fashion. It was also Mango’s line last week when linked to Rana Plaza via subcontractor, Phantom. Benetton went one step further and flat out denied it had links to the factory. When its clothes were found in the rubble next to the dead, it admitted the link and then also passed the buck onto its “one-time” subcontractor, New Wave Fashions. (This is from a company listing the creation of “a new culture against hate” as its selling point.)

There are many points one could successfully argue against this reasoning. A child could work out that, if a retailer orders clothing from an unregulated market and demands the lowest cost and the fastest turn over, somebody’s going to get crushed. Lucy Siegle, a British journalist and author of fast fashion critique, To Die For, agrees. “If anything comes out of this latest tragedy,” she wrote to me in the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy, “it should be that we understand that these arguments are total hogwash.”

Siegle and others like Aman Singh at CSRwirepoint towards an obvious conclusion. Nobody puts a gun to a retailer’s head forcing it to profit off fast fashion’s dirty supply chains. (Although there’s evidence that some workers are being forced to work in their factories.) Claims they have no control over supply lines is a PR wank. “Walmart is so big and so powerful that they really could go to any supplier they want and say, stick to our wage and safety policies or get out,” says Singh. ”There's nothing confusing at all about it.”

There are some retailers who accept these realities. During the 90s, sports brands Nike, Adidas, and Puma epitomised the word “sweatshop”. After much public pressure, they developed some of the most referenced policies in retail. Unlike most fast fashion brands and big Aussie retailers, they now disclose the locations of all suppliers. They’re not perfect but they’re leaders, along with Marks & Spencer and, to an extent, H&M, which has started disclosing it's factories.

Apart from joining PETA on No Fur campaigns or releasing tiny sustainable cotton lines, other large brands haven’t been so forthcoming. Instead, accountability happens after the fact. Bonmarche, another big UK retailer implicated in Rana Plaza, is one now publicly admitting it’s “fully aware” of its responsibility. Others throw cash at the problem, like Primark, which now says it’ll compensate Rana Plaza victims, or Wal-Mart, which gave an insulting US$1.6 million to its fire victims via indirect charity donation. Neither apologies or money can bring people back from the dead.

It’s sadly not just international brands being unaccountable. Local retailers aren’t exactly forthcoming with information about their supply lines to members of the press or independent agencies. Tying an individual factory to a brand is difficult. Many local household fashion and lifestyle names, including Target, Big W, K-Mart, and Cotton On, have clothes made in Bangladesh. Other big brands have at least worked in the past with Melbourne-based subcontractor, Mac Group, or Hong Kong-based supplier, Li & Fung, both which have sourced from Bangladesh. Li & Fung is a particularly questionable allegiance: it has links to that Dhaka factory that burned down last year.

While there is no concrete information to suggest that certain Australian brands are producing in dodgy factories, the jig is up when you realise how easily one of us could be wearing an Aussie label made in a Bangladeshi sweatshop. The only defence left for fast fashion - and this is an argument often wheeled out by neoliberal capitalists - is that it’s good for the GPP of developing markets. This is to an extent true. But you would have to be a very special breed of sadist to think this justifies a deadly system. We wouldn’t accept retailers linked to the death of Australians, so why accept this fate for our neighbours?

Finding answers to this question isn’t easy. Some are pointing towards an unsigned global Fire and Building Safety Agreement. Oxfam Australia is saying in the media this week that local retailers should disclose their supply lines. Lucy Siegle says we need to go one step further and make brands take “real responsibility” in legal terms. For example, she says, a factory in Bangladesh producing for an Aussie brand should be guaranteed by an Aussie insurer. There is also the argument that fast fashion as a business model will never work, period, because it relies on deregulation and an antiquated version of capitalism to function.

Rana Plaza is now set to become one of the worst garment factory disasters in recorded history. The role of Australians in future tragedies will become more important as fast fashion expands to our country, and local retailers mimic Wal-Mart’s high intensity production model. As long as we accept the status quo of fast fashion, we accept that human life is something to be insignificantly bought, like a pair of cheap pink creepers, a new on trend handbag, or a dress that we will only wear a few times.

Follow Emilia on Twitter: @EmiliaKate

More on Bangladeshi factory disasters:

Meet Sohel Rana, the Most Hated Man in Bangladesh

Disasters Made in Bangladesh