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In the wake of Bangladesh factory collapse, labour activists hope for a consumer shift

Bangladeshi activists shout slogans and wave flags during a procession to mark May Day or International Workers Day in Dhaka on May 1, 2013. Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis joined May Day protests Wednesday to demand the execution of textile bosses over the collapse of a factory complex, as rescuers warned the final toll could be more than 500. .
Bangladeshi activists shout slogans and wave flags during a procession to mark May Day or International Workers Day in Dhaka on May 1, 2013. Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis joined May Day protests Wednesday to demand the execution of textile bosses over the collapse of a factory complex, as rescuers warned the final toll could be more than 500. . MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Consumers have the power to force change in the fashion industry. That’s the message several Canadian organizations hope people will take away from the deadly collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory last week.

The collapse took place thousands of kilometres away from where most Canadians buy their clothes, but for many it hit home, and focused international attention on notoriously unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh’s $20 billion clothing industry.

“Ultimately we have the power as consumers to make a huge difference,” said Kelly Drennan, founding executive director of Fashion Takes Action, a Canadian non-profit organization that focuses on sustainability in the fashion industry.

The roots for Fashion Takes Action emerged in 2007, when Drennan organized the Green Gala, a fundraiser to raise awareness for sustainable fabrics on the runway.

“I soon discovered there was a real void in the industry in terms of organizations that were supporting the sustainable fashion movement,” said Drennan.

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In the days following the factory collapse, many wondered where to place responsibility – governments, retailers, brands, or consumers? All of the above?

“Often we don’t see it from this perspective and we blame corporations or government,” said Drennan. “But as consumers we are voting with our dollars every single day, and are therefore partially responsible when tragedies overseas occur.”

Police ordered an evacuation of Dhaka’s Rana Plaza after deep cracks were found in the building on Tuesday. While some businesses left the complex for the day, garment workers returned to work. Hours later, early Wednesday morning, the eight-storey, illegally constructed complex crumbled to the ground, killing at least 500 people.

Mohammed Sohel Rana, the owner of the complex, was arrested and is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work.

Where do my clothes come from?

As details emerged, and Canadian brand Joe Fresh was found to be one of the companies operating in Rana Plaza, many Canadians took a long look at their closet. In many cases, they don’t know where the clothes made – and under what conditions.

For Canadian consumers, finding ethical, sustainable fashion isn’t necessarily easy. “The ‘Made in Canada’ label might not be what you think it is,” said Drennan.

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Even if a label reads “Made in Canada” its components could come from elsewhere, said Brenna Donoghue, president of marketing for Ethical Ocean, a Toronto-based company featuring fair trade, organic and eco-friendly products.

Vanja Vasic, executive director of Fashion Art Toronto (FAT) agrees the “Made in Canada” label is unclear. “How much of it is made in Canada versus somewhere else,” Vasic asked. “It’s a concern that you don’t necessarily know where a product is made,” she said.”

What can Canadian consumers do?

Consumers should ask retailers questions about where products are made and where their materials are from, say advocates.

“Ask the [store] manager if they carry organic or fair trade. Over time the retailer will realize that there is a demand for it,” said Drennan.

On one hand, smaller, local shops may be better able to provide consumers with information on where garments are made: Smaller retailers “can really give you a far better sense of how those products were made, even the conditions of the factories where they were made,” said Dara O’Rourke, co-founder of GoodGuide, an online resource that gives products health, environmental and ethical ratings.

But at the same time, changing multinationals’ practices could have a bigger impact: Drennan urges consumers to put pressure on the big brands who manufacture overseas “to ensure they have ethical standards in their factories and are paying fair wages to the garment workers.”

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Kevin Thomas, director of advocacy at the Maquila Solidarity Network, argues that the cost of safer labour conditions overseas would only amount to a minimal increase on a garment’s price tag.

“I think if you told consumers that the goods that they’re buying could be made safely for only pennies more, they’d be very willing to shop at a store that did that,” Thomas told Global News in an interview.

“People have got to tell the companies that the places where they shop, be it Joe Fresh, Benetton or The Children’s Place, that they actually care about these issues and that they demand that the goods that they’re buying are made under safe conditions.”

Drennan also recommends holding clothing swaps and embracing “slow fashion,” resisting the pressure from the fashion media and industry to keep up with ever-changing trends.

“We can invest in our wardrobe and slow down the buying process – we can buy less pieces…classic pieces that will last us years,” Drennan said.

O’Rourke urges consumers to hold brands and retailers accountable, by asking companies where their products are manufactured, and using public forums – such as Twitter and Facebook – to ask questions. This is where the amplification power of social media comes in handy.

“The thing that we’ve seen in the U.S. that is most effective actually is people tweeting their questions or putting their questions on Facebook or circulating their questions among their friends and using social media,” he said.

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Canadian retailers respond

On Thursday, Loblaw – which owns Canadian brand Joe Fresh – announced it will include buildings’ structural integrity when auditing suppliers: While it has standards to ensure products were made in a social responsible way, those standards did not address building construction and safety.

“We must do a better job to enforce the safety of workers producing our products in Bangladesh and around the world,” said Joe Mimran, who founded the Joe Fresh brand, at a press conference in Toronto.

Loblaw also said it would provide compensation to the family members of the victims in Dhaka and have its own staff on the ground to help with supplier inspections.

Also this week the Retail Council of Canada, which represents more than 43,000 Canadian retailers, said it is updating its industry guidelines for best practices for its members. On Monday the council held an “urgent” meeting with Canadian retailers following the Bangladesh factory collapse, to discuss how to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future – although the council did not release details of the guidelines.

But Drennan said the buck doesn’t stop there.

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“If we continue to buy cheap disposable clothing that falls apart after we wash/wear it a few times, then it’s hard to blame the companies who make it because they see it as them delivering a product that we want.”

*With files the Canadian Press and the Associated Press