Bangladesh textile factory collapse

Sarah Compson - 16 May 2013

Organic cotton garment workers in India

Organic cotton garment workers in India.

As well as sadness, sympathy and compassion for the victims, something else also welled up inside me - horror. It wasn’t just horror at the unnecessary deaths of 700 (and rising) innocent people, but horror caused by a realisation that the disaster highlights the dark side of the way we think about and consume fashion. It immediately made me think of 18th and 19th Century attitudes to slavery – not because the Bangladeshi factory workers were enslaved like African-American slaves, but rather because our collective attitudes to these workers and the clothing industry they’re part of seem comparable to the attitudes of the majority of people who consumed the products of slavery in England during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Namely that we have a sense something isn’t quite right about the system, but we carry on anyway, believing that if it was that bad, governments, society, or God wouldn’t let it happen.
The Bangladesh disaster highlights the fact that the clothing industry is that bad in some cases. And it wasn’t an isolated incident. The ‘race to the bottom’ for the cheapest clothes means that corners are commonly cut, mostly affecting the vulnerable communities in developing countries where most of our clothes are made. Organisations like Labour Behind the Label (to name just one), often highlight the terrible realities behind our clothes.
However, whilst human rights abuse and worker safety issues are common problems in the textile industry, the reality isn’t completely bleak.
Some brands and retailers are trying to tackle these issues in their supply chains. It’s not an easy job, partly because supply chains tend to be complex and large, and partly because improving social conditions adds costs, which companies think their customers won’t pay. But it is possible to improve things and some companies are willing to take the necessary steps. Organisations like Textile Exchange are doing a brilliant job working with brands and retailers in order to address these issues and find workable solutions. Certification schemes like GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) mean that we as consumers can choose to buy clothes that have been produced by people working in safe and humane conditions. Last month, my colleague George went to India and saw for herself that conditions in factories can be excellent when social and environmental issues are prioritised – making a huge difference for workers.
I recently learnt that almost to the day, 150 years ago, representatives from the Lancashire mill towns wrote to Abraham Lincoln to declare their support for the Northern States’ anti-slavery blockade of trade from the Confederate States. This was despite the fact that the trade blockade was directly causing desperate hardship in the numerous Lancashire mill towns which relied on imports of Southern cotton picked by slaves. This astonishing act of altruism led Lincoln to respond by writing “I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom...”
Is it really too much to hope for a modern-day repeat of this altruism?
In a rush to apportion blame for the Bangladesh factory collapse, we shouldn’t miss the fact that it might also be a wake-up call – an opportunity to take action. Action doesn’t necessarily mean boycott (in fact boycotting businesses can ironically be more damaging to those at the bottom of the supply chain than those at the top). Action means making a decision to buy my clothes from companies that care about these issues as much as I do and are doing something meaningful to improve them. Action means buying less but spending more where I know the extra cost is to pay for better social and environmental conditions along the supply chain. Action is about telling my favourite brands and retailers that I don’t want them to produce a £3 t-shirt for me if it means someone might die as a result of the cost-cutting required to sell it at that price.
At the very least, action for me means thinking about the costs beyond the price tag and putting my money where my morals are. Have you cottoned on yet?
Sarah Compson works on the Cottoned On campaign at the Soil Association. The campaign seeks to highlight the proven benefits of organic cotton for people and the environment and asks consumers to consider the impact of their clothes. Show your support at

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re: GM No Thank You
18 May 2013 09:01

Dr Keith Belmont clearly explains in his comment that we can afford organic and fairtrade clothing if we buy less. How many T-shirts does one need? How often does one need to go out and buy new clothing? Style over fashion, thanks - the last thing I bought was a year ago, and I love fashion! The same applies to the food and fuel 'debate'. It's been proven over and over again that organic food is affordable to all if we are all to cook from scratch rather that buy packaged meals (with no nutrition to boot!). How many chickens does one need to buy? 2 cheapos that have been reared unethically or one plump, organic one? Ever thought about picking ALL the meat off the bones to make a stew the next day.. and then making stock from the carcass? There are 3 family meals from one chicken right there. Fuel? Wear a jumper at home... ride a bike.. read a book instead of telly.. simple solutions to improve our world for ALL, and get rid of the slave labour that is rife, but just not on our doorstep.

Dr Keith Belmont
17 May 2013 08:32

Sorry to labour this but this comment on" the poor". I have been in the fair trade business and Clothes sales in particular most of my life. The so called poor end of fashion market is driven by fashion changes. Fair trade and eco materials and design aim at encouraging us to buy less...less do you get that. Because less is consumed then everybody can afford eco... durable... and classic clothes . It is possible in every area of our lives to live on less and thus slave labour, as this truly is can be avoided. The only limit to the idea of consuming less is in fact the drive for profit. Do we truly want to continue to support profit at any price? The truth is the slaves laboured, do not benefit from profits. We do not benefit from profits.the concept is erosive.I personally have clothing items and have customers with items we sold ten plus years ago to them. Men especially, fashion does not change that fast...our life focus can change, will change and we can stop slave labour if we have the will.That creates political will and real change ...we have to do this and now is the time!

GM No Thank You
16 May 2013 20:27

Nice article. There's one aspect, though, that appears to be missing in it: It appears to appeal only to as yet relatively affluent people to "cotton on" and make changes in their spending behaviour. But there are more and more people in this country being be forced to choose even between food and fuel when it comes to spending the little money they have, and they have to cut costs wherever they can. Since organic cotton items are priced several times as much as the price for the quasi slave labour goods from SE Asia, the poor cannot be expected to go that route. This is not the first time in my experience that the Soil Association appears to ignored or forgotten about the poor in this country in its write-ups and I'd be happy to see a shift in consciousness there from it. Other than that, best of luck with your work! :)

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