Relatives show pictures of missing garment workers during a protest following the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, in Savar, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. (REUTERS/Andrew Biraj)
In March 2011, I traveled undercover as a garment buyer to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to do research for my book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. I found the garment industry there to be very incestuous and opaque. I thought I’d arranged several garment factory tours, yet twice I ended up in the smoky offices of slick-looking, gold-ring-wearing “middlemen” who told me they owned a portfolio of factories. “Clients never want to see the factory,” they told me. One middleman tried to sell me H&M clothes that the brand had never picked up, the idea being that I could sell them illegally. “No thanks,” I told him. I left deeply cynical about this international racket to produce cheap, disposable clothes.
In fact, I remember having the distinct feeling that it was only a matter of time before something terrible happened—something like the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory on April 24 that left more than 400 dead, with the toll rising every day as the bodies of workers are extracted from the wreckage.
I did manage to visit a few garment and textile factories in and around Dhaka, the capital city, on whose outskirts in the industrial suburb of Savar the collapsed Rana Plaza building was located. They looked to untrained eyes like any other factory I’ve seen. Nothing stuck out as unsafe or exploitative. Herein lies the problem. Currently, big fashion brands audit their suppliers a few times a year at most, hiring someone to walk through with a checklist—fire extinguisher, check; clearly marked exit signs, check; code of conduct and workers’ rights posted on the wall, check. At an Umbro factory I visited in downtown Dhaka, the emergency fire-exit plan was posted in English, which the workers could not read. Does any of this do any good in a country lacking in basic building codes and things like fire escapes?
Bangladesh is an extremely poor country, separated by great swaths of geography from the modernized, developed world. Dhaka is a winding, bustling snarl. The power lines look like balls of yarn, and at the time of my visit, the electricity was cutting out an average of six times a day. The roads are so clogged with rickshaws, buses, animals and cars that it takes hours to travel anywhere. When brands like Walmart and Benetton said they didn’t realize their clothes were being made in Rana Plaza, it didn’t surprise me at all. When I visited, I scheduled a meeting with a labor leader who was traveling from the factories in Savar to Dhaka, but the gridlock was so bad he eventually called and said he wouldn’t be able to make it. Benetton later admitted to placing a single “one-off” order with Rana Plaza. Who knows what else happens in Dhaka once the brands’ representatives leave? The garment industry, just like the city, is unregulated and haphazard.
The Bangladeshis I met understood acutely the opportunity to make money by anticipating Western needs and tastes. It’s all about appearances there, which often don’t hold up under the slightest scrutiny. The amenity-less, hospital-like hotel I stayed at in Dhaka, called Lake View Plaza, is described online as an “International Standard Deluxe Hotel,” yet there was often no electricity in my room and my balcony faced a slum. There was something familiar about Rana Plaza, owned by another slick-looking, gold-ring-wearing wannabe entrepreneur (luckily the man, Sohel Rana, was arrested on April 28). From the outside, Rana Plaza looked quite impressive for Bangladesh. It was eight stories high, and the facade had ultramodern windows. But it was destined to be a pile of rubble.
As beautiful as Bangladesh is and as gracious as the people are, I couldn’t think of any reason an international corporation would do business in such a place except cheap labor. These fashion companies and the entire American economy have formed a corrosive and now deadly reliance on cheap consumer goods. Corporations have persuaded consumers that cheap prices are fair. And this paradigm has hollowed out the middle class and led to the exploitation of both people and planet.
I am an impassioned advocate for small-scale, locally produced fashion. But where are the large fashion companies willing to take a risk and reinvent their brands around ethical fashion production? It’s time to trust that the consumer, all things being equal, will buy an ethically made product. We’re ready. It’s up to the brands to figure out how to do this and communicate it in a compelling way.
Here are two examples: Eileen Fisher has introduced a labeling system that marks whether an item of clothing is fair trade, made in the USA or certified organic. Knights Apparel, which produces clothing for American colleges, owns a successful, unionized factory in the Dominican Republic that pays a living wage [see Peter Dreier, “Another Factory Is Possible,” November 7, 2011]. Get that? The company is not subcontracting. It actually owns and takes full responsibility for the factory that makes its products. And its products cost the same as those of its rivals (Nike and Adidas). I hope in the coming months we see major fashion brands adopting similar practices, or coming up with their own innovative and ethical alternatives to the cheap-fashion juggernaut. As the tragedy in Bangladesh has shown, it’s long past time.
Bangladesh also saw a deadly factory fire last year in which 112 workers died, some of whom were making products for Walmart. Josh Eidelson wrote  about the retail giant’s sketchy global supply chain reputation.