Global Mode: Rana Plaza

If you are interested in the global apparel market, you must have been following the story of the collapse of a garment factory, Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh that killed more than 400 people and injured many more. The owner of the building, Sohel Rana, is now under house arrest, his assets seized. Blame is being passed around like a hot potato, with pressure from Western companies, lax attitudes on the part of the building’s owner, and irresponsibility of the factory owners most commonly cited. This is “the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry,” according to the New York Times, and people across Bangladesh reacted with emotional, violent protests in the days following the accident.

Women waiting to hear news of those missing in the collapse of Rana Plaza on April 24. Photo: Kevin Frayer/AP

Women waiting to hear news of those missing in the collapse of Rana Plaza on April 24. Photo: Kevin Frayer/AP.

Some Western companies implicated have given statements, and a shameful–albeit unsurprising–number of them allege that they did not have clothing “in production” at the time of the collapse. While the question of time was essential in this preventable tragedy, claiming that the production of clothing by the same factory weeks or months earlier did not contribute to the eventual collapse is irresponsible and cowardly. Low-end British retailer Primark, whose labels were found in the building after the collapse, acknowledged their responsibility and want to contribute financially to the suffering families; could that money have gone toward creating safe workplaces before the fact?

Some early reporting blamed the unsafe conditions on pressure from these Western companies to produce quickly in massive quantities. The New York Times reported that although inspectors hired by global brands examine  “safety factors and working conditions,” they are not responsible for checking the condition of buildings; where do you think the responsibility of inspectors should start and end? An engineer from Rana Plaza apparently attempted to warn the building’s owners about the dangerous condition of the building and was rebuffed; television stations reported on the cracks in the structure, but were ignored by local officials.

Collapsed factory building, Rana Plaza, in Savar, Bangladesh, 2013. Photo: A.M. Ahad/AP.

Collapsed factory building, Rana Plaza, in Savar, Bangladesh, 2013. Seventy-two people were saved. Photo: A.M. Ahad/AP.

One significant argument for low-cost garment production in these countries is that it gives people jobs. It is possible that these factory workers might not have had other options, or could have fallen into far worse situations. However, I believe that positioning Western, global companies as the only or best solution to endemic poverty and unemployment in places such as Bangladesh perpetuates these issues instead of “solving” them–and what kind of opportunity is $40/month, regardless of cost of living?

Americans notoriously argue for democracy of fashion, that companies and brands offering low-priced clothing are giving those of us who cannot afford high fashion our right to buy. The system that produces these billions of objects, where the American or European consumer is at the top of the food chain, may seem democratic from such great heights. But incidents like the collapse of this building are wedges in the cracks in that argument, as are fires such as that which killed 112 people in Bangladesh in November 2012, and the numerous smaller incidents and general unsafe conditions that go unreported by big Western news media outlets. These are preventable.

The fashion news website Business of Fashion published a thoughtful Op-Ed piece by Liroy Choufan on the consumer’s justification of overspending as “democracy,” especially worth a read with these terrible events in mind. Another Op-Ed to read was written by M.T. Anderson on the history of garment-trade tragedy, the “flow” of cheap labor from “ethnicity to ethnicity,” and how this recent incident in a faraway land is really very close to our lives. I wonder if you, like me, will be met cruelly and ironically with a pop-up banner advertisement for two-for-one shoe deals: two pairs, $39.99!


How do you make decisions about what you purchase and wear? Is the country of production an important consideration, or irrelevant to your choice? What responsibility do American and global clothing companies have toward the people who make their clothing? Toward their customers? What responsibility do you have as a consumer? Do you think it’s effective to “vote with your wallet”?

I’m very interested in what our readers think about this event and the surrounding conversation: please leave your comments below!

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  • Peggy May 03, 2013 07.35 pm

    I am always thinking about where my stuff comes from after reading several books about it. I am also trying to make my teenage son who likes to internet shop, realize the t-shirt comes from somewhere and the made in USA label can be suspect. I buy most of my clothes second hand and you see a lot of fast fashion turn up there not even worn. That also bugs me. It’ s dilemma as I love fashion/style but I don’t enjoy doing so at the cost of someone else’s life. But the garment business is huge and so many are dependent upon it.
    PS. I love being able to discuss this.

  • Arianna May 05, 2013 01.52 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Peggy! It sounds like you’re not only making educated choices yourself, but I applaud your efforts to also inspire others to inform themselves on the origin of their clothing.

    I buy almost exclusively second-hand and vintage (an easy way to avoid supporting poor practices), but realize it’s not for everyone…I’d love to hear from people who buy new clothing conscientiously.

    Thanks for your thoughtful feedback! I love being able to discuss this too, it’s an important–and as you mention, HUGE!–part of our clothing culture.

  • Monica Lynn May 07, 2013 09.47 pm

    I think there is definitely a responsibility on the part of labels and wholesalers to to their best to ensure that the production of their garments does good not only in their own community but in the community of the factories and manufacturers. However, I don’t believe we can blame them for harmful practices on the part of the factories and manufacturers. As a general example, if a company contracts with a factory to produce a run of a certain garment for them, they have only a contractual obligation with the factory. They do not own the factory or manage it’s business and generally have an extremely limited view of the factories practices. They likely may have partnered with an agent who contracted the factory for production. To place blame on the labels for the factory’s misdeeds would be like blaming a retail customer who purchases a garment from a retail store for the retail store’s illegal practices.

    That being said, just as individual consumers can have an effect on the market for vendors and wholesalers by being conscientious in their retail purchases to affect change for the better, so should wholesalers when contracting factories and manufacturers. We should all strive to make a change for the better, but withhold blame unless an educated and sound judgement can be made.

  • Arianna May 08, 2013 12.57 pm

    Thanks Monica–a really great point. I didn’t write enough about the role of the factory owners, or about how some of the clothing manufactured there is for local consumption.

    In reading about this preventable tragedy (the body count is above 700 by now), there are obviously serious issues with factory ownership in Bangladesh, a country that now relies heavily on foreign contracts within the garment industry. In recent reporting on some global companies’ intentions to stop using Bangladeshi factories, the financial implications for “mass exodus” are grave. The industry’s reliance on contracts from global companies and pressure to produce so much clothing for relatively little money has been given as reasoning (correctly or no) for local officials’ and factory owners’ ignoring warnings about the condition of the building and opening it when they shouldn’t have. Is the reasoning instead greed, corruption, and/or negligence on the part of the factory owners and managers? We will see with an eventual trial of Sohel Rana, whose greed and corruption is obvious where perhaps others’ may not be. Although the chain of responsibility may be long and obscured, I will still choose to support companies that take that responsibility seriously and personally and take action to ensure that all links in their chain meet certain standards.

    Rana Plaza is only one example, but fires and other, earlier preventable tragedies in factories in Bangladesh and around the developing world show that this it is not unique.

    My omissions were not intentional (although my subconscious bias must account for them), but I’m glad that they spark conversation! I appreciate your reminder of the range of opinions, perspectives, and reasoning behind each consumer’s choices. Thanks for your comments, Monica!


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