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Why cheap fashion remains deadly

Jan Tomes
April 24, 2017

The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 workers was a wake-up call to the industry. Four years after the disaster, has anything changed in the fashion world?

Jost Franko Bildergalerie
Image: Jost Franko

There is nothing as human as the act of dressing up. However, there is little that is humane about the industries that surround the act.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013, which killed 1,129 garment factory workers, has been perhaps the strongest manifestation of the moral decadence of the system that spits out cheap, low-quality clothes produced under very few regulations in third-world countries. Has anything changed in the past four years?

Whose responsibility?

Despite newly implemented sustainability and social responsibility programs by "fast fashion" brands such as the Swedish clothing giant H&M, which recognizes Germany as its biggest European market, the industry looks very much the same it did four years ago.

According to a recent study by Sarah Labowitz and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly published by New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, 3,425 inspections have taken place since October 2015 in Bangladesh, for example - but only eight factories passed them.

Bangladesch 4. Jahrestag Einsturz Textilfabrik
Bangladeshi activists mark the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapseImage: Getty Images/AFP

"There are two reasons why so few factories are successfully being fixed. First, the most essential upgrades to make factories safer, such as electrical improvements and moving to purpose-built facilities, are expensive," says the research, estimating the average cost of remediation to $250,000 - $350,000 (230,000 - 322,000 euros) per factory. The second reason, according to the research, is that brands see it as the suppliers' responsibility to pay for these expensive factory repairs.

Similar trends in the EU

Low wages, hazardous conditions, poor legislation, a lack of transparency in production lines and the brands' denied responsibility are not only characteristic for the industry in Bangladesh, however.

Jost Franko's photo series "Cotton Black, Cotton Blue" (picture gallery above) shows how the failures of the garment industry are systematic. In 2015 and 2016, Franko visited Bangladesh and Burkina Faso but also Romania, and his experience was similar in all countries. "Employees in the garment sector are one of the lowest paid workers in the European Union. Their wages are often lower than in factories in China," he told DW.

Chains such as Primark, Zara, or H&M are not the only ones to outsource their production. According to the "Wall Street Journal," about 20 percent of all goods by Prada, the leading Italian luxury brand, are made in China, and several lines by Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and other expensive names are produced in Cambodia and Romania, among others.

Democracy embroidered with slavery

The phenomenon of low-cost and instantly available clothes, which has cynically been named "the democratization of fashion," is both a social and ecological disaster.

Although it has given people in developed countries the possibility to wear watered-down runway fashions for a fraction of the designer price tag, the overproduction required to constantly satisfy consumers has also severely impacted tens of millions of people in the rest of the world.

On April 1, for example, a factory in Karachi, Pakistan, caught fire, and just two weeks later, an explosion in an unregistered sweatshop killed two in Cambodia, as reported by the local paper "Phnom Penh Post."

Shopping Konsum Einkaufen Billig Symbolbild
Most consumers prefer to ignore the human cost of "amazing fashion at amazing prices"Image: Getty Images

Disposable clothing, disposable lives

When asked whether they were aware of the conditions under which their freshly purchased clothes had been made, shoppers on Berlin's main shopping boulevard, Kurfürstendamm, - both Germans and tourists alike - typically answered, "But I thought they've already resolved that!" 

The truth is that very little has been done in spite of various promises made after Rana Plaza. The numbers and incidents do not seem to have a strong impact on customers.

"The problem is the ever-increasing demand for fast fashion. Fast fashion will never be sustainable as its business model is based on producing huge volumes, incredibly quickly, very cheaply so that we can buy more clothes," said Livia Firth, founder and creative director of Eco Age, in a "Business of Fashion" survey about fast fashion.

Amy Hall, director of social consciousness at Eileen Fisher, added that "very little has substantively changed for the factory workers. Wages are still obscenely low, hours obscenely high, and overall transparency unbearably murky."

Fashion has played a fundamental role in the social, cultural, and biological identity of our civilization. In the last decades, clothing has been reduced to mere rags. The lives the industry employs have become just as disposable as the collections it churns out.

As the popular saying goes, fashion is indeed the mirror of our times.