A campaign launched this week aims to ensure the tragedy is a tipping point for both the industry and consumers
A week on, the Rana Plaza catastrophe in Bangladesh is now the deadliest catastrophe in the history of the garment industry, with the death toll exceeding 500. The gruesome accounts of rescuers cutting off limbs from trapped workers (sometimes without anaesthesia) surely leaves a stain on brands that no new collection, celebrity endorsement or micro-trend can wash away? Doesn't it?
However, it was simultaneously shocking and grimly predictable. Those who have petitioned the fashion industry to face up to its responsibilities will have felt as sick as I did when they heard a factory complex had collapsed in Dhaka. Yes, there were other types of businesses in Rana Plaza but we knew immediately that the bodies pulled dead from the rubble would be garment workers producing clothing for the retailers and brands we all patronise.
Because garment workers are always there, bulking up the casualty lists of the biggest industrial accidents, and setting new mortality records. At this particular complex when dangerous cracks were reported, other workers were apparently sent away. Garment workers were ordered back in.
When you're part of the Cut Make and Trim (CMT) army, as we might call the estimated 40 million producing fast fashion around the world, 3.5 million in Bangladesh alone, there's simply no let up. A makeshift factory might collapse at night as happened in 2005 in the Spectrum knitwear factory, also in the Savar district of Dhaka, leaving 62 dead. Or it might catch fire during daylight hours as in Tazreen last November when fire escapes were locked and more than 100 died. Either way, garment workers will be trying to complete near-impossible orders.
Perhaps, though, the Rana Plaza tragedy could be a tipping point. Maybe young consumers (often considered difficult to reach) will be jolted into action against the brands they seem to worship. "I would urge any young shopper to think about whether they believe over 500 deaths is an acceptable scenario," says Stacey Dooley, who saw at first hand the real cost of fast fashion production, for the BBC 3 series Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts. "If not, they should let the retailers know and threaten to take their money elsewhere," she adds.
It's indicative of the chaos of today's fashion supply chain that many brands don't know where they are producing. An order might be placed in a first-tier factory that ticks all the auditor's health and safety boxes. But, according to Doug Miller, emeritus professor of supply chain ethics at Northumbria University and author of Last Nightshift in Savar: "Factory owners can't make money on the original order – the price has been set too low – so will therefore find someone who can," subcontracting to producers of ever-declining standards.
"In Bangladesh," Miller says, "you have a glut of buyers in search of a cheap product wanting to place enormous orders; and capacity is built hurriedly. Factory installations are shoddy, workers locked in and lead times are too tight."
It remains to be seen whether consumers will tolerate the usual excuses from brands. Perhaps the most pernicious of all – I paraphrase – is: "We don't own the factories so we can't help what happens in them." This is usually followed by devolving responsibility to the host government. It is technically true: but let's not pretend this is a regret. Over two decades the big retailers and brands (not just those caught producing in Rana Plaza) have systematically distanced themselves from the manufacture of their product. It is part of their business model.
Meanwhile fashion brands seem allergic to collective action. Instead of coming together as one body with NGOs to trash out living wages and safety agreements, they go it alone. They excel at dreaming up new schemes that look great in a corporate social responsibility video but are useless at creating any effective change. "The answers to this latest crisis have got to be collective in every sense of the world," Miller says.
The fashion industry has some pretty specious get-out-of-jail-free cards. Some are cultural. Livia Firth, founder of the Green Carpet Challenge and a campaigner for industry reform, says: "The industry is plagued by disposability and sensationalism. Fashion editorial, in my opinion, should be there to teach us about the beauty of craftsmanship, ateliers, seamstresses, to celebrate fashion heroes." Without this, she argues: "We don't give a damn about the people who make the garments. They're incidental."
More prosaically, antitrust laws (also known as competition laws) are cited by fast fashion brands as a reason for refusing to discuss pricing strategies, costs in the supply chain or the factories they source from. This impedes strategies to make the supply chain more equitable. Further hope for change, however, was provided last week by word from within the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on ethics and sustainability in fashion.
"Let's now be really serious about the true cost of clothing," Baroness Young, its chair, told me. "The APPG is determined to call to account all of those companies that are implicated in these kinds of practices. And we want them to understand that we will examine how supply chains function and expect them to remedy problems."
Young should expect to call a lot of witnesses. Many believe that the whole fashion supply chain is caught up in the problem. "Do not for a minute suppose that just because a brand you wear wasn't found in the rubble, it is clean. It could have been any of the brands," says Sam Maher of the campaign group Labour Behind the Label.
Just two companies – PVH, owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein among others, and Tchibo, a German retail brand – have signed the Bangladesh fire and building safety agreement drafted late last year. Gap led the negotiations initially but pulled out in favour of its own self-auditing agreement. The deadline for brands to sign the agreement is 15 May. They must consider it a cultural licence to operate. This week the ethical brand People Tree will urge consumers to join its Rag Rage campaign demanding retailers sign up to a three-point plan including signing the Bangladesh fire and safety agreement.
The window to demand change is closing. Wednesday marked the mass burial of unidentified garment workers in a large pit in Savar. Thursday marked the reopening of garment factories across Bangladesh. By Friday the Bangladesh finance minister, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, was playing down the significance of the tragedy. If we don't act now, it'll be business as usual followed by shopping as usual. We cannot let that happen.
Lucy Siegle, the Observer's ethical living columnist, is the author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?