Rana Plaza: 6 Years After the Tragedy

by María García-Mauriño

The day of the Rana Plaza tragedy, journalists from all around the world traveled to Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. It was a sunny morning that 24th of April, 2013, when the garment factory collapsed. In a globalized world, it took seconds for astonished reporters to cover that around 40 workers were found dead. A couple of weeks later, the number had rose to more than 1,134 deaths, with families still searching for their loved ones under the rubble.

The Rana Plaza factory after it’s collapse in 2013. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

The Rana Plaza factory after it’s collapse in 2013. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

If this all sounds unfamiliar, don’t worry — you are just one of the billions of people who didn’t hear about it. Even though fast fashion production has doubled in the last five years, Rana Plaza remains the deadliest garment related tragedy in history. Bangladeshi workers pointed out the humongous cracks in the walls of the building to management for days before the collapse, yet they were forced back in with violence. Unfortunately, Rana Plaza was just one of four garment tragedies that year due to unsafe working conditions, and surprisingly enough 2014 (yes, the year after) was the most profitable year in history for fast fashion companies, according to the 2015 documentary the true cost. Less than a month away from the 6th anniversary, we question how the tragedy impacted production and consumption in the second dirtiest industry in the world only after oil.

Fast fashion as we know it was born as a way for brands to rotate more product, and the need to keep costs low was solved by outsourcing production to third world countries such as Bangladesh or China. The system has created 52 micro-seasons, versus the traditional approach where between two and four seasons were produced throughout the year, thus fueling our compulsive shopping needs. This shift in production led to negative externalities in the countries where the clothes are produced and even earlier in the process when the cotton is farmed. As factories become completely unable to fulfill order requests from big fast fashion corporations, they have been pressured to subcontract part of the production to other factories, leading to clothes being manufactured in facilities that are more than often “noncompliant with minimum standards for safety and workers’ rights” in a phenomena referred to as “indirect sourcing”. However, Rana Plaza was a huge turning point for the industry, with governments, consumers and companies quickly taking action.

In fact after the collapse, the scope of the conversation crossed borders at a high governmental level and was entirely focused on guaranteeing the safety of workers in order to avoid another catastrophe the size of Rana Plaza. As an example, the U.K government quickly built up and passed the “Modern Slavery Act”, which actively demanded that all businesses with a revenue exceeding 36 million pounds a year should make a compulsory annual disclosure of the treatment of workers in the factories that they use.

One could think that this “government-taking-action” thing comes as little surprise — it’s what they are expected to do. With Rana Plaza however, a different and extremely powerful voice entered the conversation and started changing the game: consumers. It only took days for them to turn into activists, start both boycotting brands involved in the tragedy and campaigning in the streets fighting for answers. Probably the most significant actions taken by companies given the pressure received from consumers were the creation of The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. The more than 200 Western fashion brands that signed are “committed to the goal of a safe and sustainable Bangladeshi Ready-Made Garment (RMG) industry in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses, or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures." Although The Alliance stopped operating last year finishing the five year period it was intended for, the Accord was extended to 2021 and more than 190 largely European brands have already signed on to the extension. Seeing the threat of losing their businesses, thousands of factory owners invested in fire doors, sprinkler systems, electrical upgrades and stronger foundations, ending more than 97,000 safety hazards identified in the Accord. For the first time in history, the biggest global garment players worked together to introduce common human rights standards on factory safety, and that was just the start. Zara and H&M, both among the biggest fast fashion brands in the world, boycotted an industry conference in Dhaka in 2017 as a way of protesting the mistreatment of workers and the strong regulations against labor unions.

Garment workers in Dhaka protest following the Rana Plaza tragedy. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

Garment workers in Dhaka protest following the Rana Plaza tragedy. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

It is indeed time for traditional fast fashion companies to take sustainability and safety as part of their mission. Zara offers an incredible example of transparency and responsible production by owning most of the factories where they produce. With their name on the line, they have huge incentives to provide the best conditions they can to workers and to build long term relationships with suppliers based on trust and future development. H&M has disclosed the list of factories they work with, and they have taken an active part in externally auditing their supply chain. Less than a month ago, they worked alongside the global union IndustriALL and the Swedish trade union IF Metall to provide support to local unions and fight for an increase in wages.

Some brands have emerged from under this hurricane of change and, by understanding the importance we as consumers are giving to a direct and transparent sourcing, and they have built their competitive edge. Everlane is a great example. If you quickly visit their website, you’ll be able to track exactly what factories they operate in. However, not only do they know where their clothes are made, but they carefully choose those factories based on how much of an impact they are making in their respective communities, marketing it through the hashtag #KnowYourFactories. For instance, they work with the factory MAS in Sri Lanka, a leader in ethical manufacturing in the country offering workers educational programs, health initiatives, financial aid plans and training to substantially improve their workers’ lives. Other brands such as Reformation blend style and sustainability, and keeping true to their motto “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option - we're #2,” they also offer exhaustive information on where their clothes are made. They also prioritize long term relationships with factories to give us quality products not sewed beneath unsafe ceilings.

All in all, Rana Plaza opened a lasting debate on fast fashion practices and lead to imminent pressure from consumers, who have unapologetically acknowledged their power and established clear limits on what they won’t be tolerating anymore. Six years after Rana Plaza, brands are fully aware that they can’t risk being involved in a similar tragedy, transforming the core of the business from a competition based on who provides lower prices to a new battle ground of who offers the most sustainable practices. Gen Z are more concerned than ever about the world around them, and it is up to the population as a whole to come up with effective solutions so the time comes when we’ll be able to remove the term “unsafe” from the definition of fast fashion.