Can consumer awareness change labor practices in the garment industry?
On April 24, 2013, following the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, one thousand workers were killed, countless were left injured, and Fashion Revolution was born. Founded by two United Kingdom-based fashion designers, Fashion Revolution emerged in response to the Rana Plaza disaster as a not-for-profit global movement that now engages more than ninety countries around the world and seeks to establish systemic reform of the fashion industry (fashionrevolution.org). With the ultimate goal of improving working conditions, the movement focuses on supply chain transparency between corporations and consumers in order to raise awareness in the Western market. The campaigns take form in an annual global day of action on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse and engagement with brands via the social media hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes. Fashion Revolution sets to capture public attention and hold brands accountable for the labor conditions under which their garments are made by making use of consumer-driven social media posts on platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. While the campaign is successful in its goal of raising consumer awareness on a global level, promoting ethical consumption and creating transnational labor solidarity, four years after the disaster, it has failed to deliver change. This is because Fashion Revolution, which engages with corporations, lacks crucial relationships with workers and labor movements.
In the wake of Rana Plaza, Fashion Revolution aims to change how the garment industry operates by cultivating consumer awareness of the conditions under which clothes worn in the Western world are produced. Simply put, Fashion Revolution aims to expose the truth behind the fashion industry of garment workers working in inhumane conditions, including long hours, low-wages, and workspaces in unsafe buildings to the Western world. The labor conditions that led to a disaster like Rana Plaza are the results of the uneven economic development between the world demanding product and the world supplying product and the exploitation of the latter by the former. This uneven development derives from the interaction between two groups with different levels of affluence, the Western corporations and the Asian factory workers, and ultimately leads to the geography of production and consumption in the global clothing trade that we know today (Brooks, 49). Fashion Revolution seeks to reveal to Western consumers the systemic exploitation of workers as a means for big corporations like H&M and Zara to increase profit—a dynamic that applies to in any waged-labor business, where surplus value or profit is equal to the exploitation of labor. As Andrew Brooks suggests in Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second Hand Clothes (2015), the rate of exploitation of workers will increase as long as it remains socially accepted to generate greater profit and expand firms. While placing value on profitability and growth may seem innocuous, it implicitly condones generating more money by maximizing the exploitation of labor. This is done through brute force—in the form of lengthened workdays, cuts to salaries, or failure to implement resources meant to ensure worker safety—or through technological change that reduces the cost of labor-power. Simply put, corporations put profit above worker safety. Despite these conditions, the workers, who are predominantly women, continue to go to work to support their families or help their family pay their dowries if they are unmarried, even if it means putting their lives in danger. It is through corporations’ quest for greater profits and the satisfaction of consumer demands at the expense of labor conditions that disasters like Rana Plaza take place and thousands of people lose their lives.
The Rana Plaza factory collapsed due to the ongoing failure to properly implement safety standards, an outcome of the factory’s quest for increased revenue that ultimately resulted in the loss of worker lives. According to “The Shirt on Your Back,” a 2014 interactive documentary published by The Guardian that details the story of Rana Plaza factory worker Mahmuda Akhter, the rhetoric around a crackdown on building safety was popular among brands and factories following collapse of a factory in Dhaka in 2012. However, with the companies still responding to the economic recession in the United States, the pressure on brands to drive prices down lower and produce faster outweighed pressure for the proper implementation of safety regulations. This resulted in brands relying on corrupt, uneducated, local authorities to monitor building safety, and this poor oversight ultimately led to the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 (The Guardian). Further, as evidenced in the interactive documentary, Rana Plaza received an illegal extension from five to eight floors, in order to increase profitability. The social impact of the Rana Plaza collapse surpasses any disaster in the history of the garment industry, counting a record number of deaths of more than1,130 people and twice as many injuries (The Guardian). Outside of the large death toll, the disaster tore working class families apart. Mahmuda not only lost her husband in the collapse but was also forced to return to her village, as she could no longer afford living expenses on her own. Moreover, the weeks following the collapse were host to numerous strikes in the streets of Dhaka, to which local authorities responded with tear gas, and the dismissal of accountability from large brands who claimed that the unsafe working conditions were beyond their control, downplaying the role of cheap labor in their decision to locate production in Bangladesh (The Guardian). The horrific impact of Rana Plaza before and after its collapse—the long hours, low-wages, unsafe building and lost lives—was the price to pay for cheaper fashion and higher revenue in the West. And while the world reacted with horror following the collapse, public memory is short, and days later, Western shoppers continued to purchase fast fashion, and the fashion industry made little changes in their factories. Thus, Fashion Revolution acknowledges that systemic change in the fashion industry must start on the shop floor with pressure from the Western consumer and the creation of transnational labor solidarity.
The Fashion Revolution movement achieves its goal of creating transnational labor solidarity by mobilizing the power of the voices of western consumers to stand up for workers’ interests. Through the movement’s annual Fashion Revolution Day of Action protests on April 24, in which by ninety countries participate, Fashion Revolution reduces the distance between consumer and producer and between the idea of our clothes as commodities and our clothes as someone’s livelihood. The day of action represents the first facet of Fashion Revolution that fosters a horizontal conversation between the East and the West. The movement raises voices and awareness for change based on solidarity rather than charity, acknowledging Western consumers’ complicity in the exploitation of factory workers and leveraging the power of their voices to effect change. Fashion Revolution typifies labor activism and advocacy that has become most popular in the wake of Rana Plaza that seeks to represent the interests of the garment worker from the West in solidarity (Siddiqi, 172). This consumer activism in the West renders the movement effective and powerful as it works within established ideologies that corporations listen to (Siddiqi, 172). Fashion Revolution’s methods emphasize that the systemic change in the fashion industry needs representation and solidarity from Western actors, as well as the power of their pocketbooks, in order to be heard. Hence, the movement successfully raises awareness and media attention vis-à-vis labor conditions in factories in the Bangladesh thanks to the conversation between the East and the West and the consumer’s capacity to build strength in numbers.
Moreover, this horizontal conversation is strengthened through Fashion Revolution’s leveraging of consumer voices and their social capital. The movement seeks to create effective consumer activism by partnering with universities to create Fashion Revolution Student Ambassadors, thus raising consumer awareness within multiple groups and building strength in numbers. According to their website, Fashion Revolution Student Ambassadors around the world make use of the educational resources available through the organization in order to instigate conversations about labor rights, conditions, and events like Rana Plaza in their respective communities. The movement focuses on education of a wider population of individuals—from students to the working class to the upper class—in order to enter the consciousness of everyday Western consumers and to pressure brands to implement changes. Thus, through partnerships with preexisting communities, Fashion Revolution acts on the notion that education about labor conditions leads to action and expands the movement’s capacity to enter public consciousness and influence public opinion (Luce, 155). The movement gains awareness and increases its power by turning to students and consumer activist community allies to build coalitions that hold brands accountable for their actions (Luce, 173-174). Their emphasis on education can also be seen through the video produced by Fashion Revolution and published on YouTube called “2 Euro T-Shirt—A Social Experiment,” where consumers are confronted with a vending machine selling T-shirts for two euros apiece and are told they were produced with low-wages and long hours in order to drive down cost. Hence, through a focus on education and a horizontal conversation, Fashion Revolution successfully raises awareness about unfair labor conditions in garment factories located in developing countries and starts a dialogue between consumers and producers.
Fashion Revolution starts this conversation between consumers and producers about unfair labor conditions and builds transnational labor solidarity through its social media campaign. The movement’s social media campaign is concentrated on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes. The campaign urges western consumers to post a picture of their clothing labels on social media accompanied by the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes in order to get brands to be transparent about supply chain and the conditions under which they produce their goods. In this campaign, Fashion Revolution successfully raises awareness, as the consumer who posts brings awareness of the situation to their social network and strengthens the conversation between consumers and producers by increasing the movement’s audience in their post. Celebrity engagement has also been an effective way for the campaign to gain consumer attention and to make participation not only caring but also cool. Richey and Ponte, who have conducted research on corporate social responsibility programs, state that social media campaigns are lauded for a ripple effect wherein a single post not only gains the poster’s audience’s attention but also prompts the audience to emulate and contribute to the movement as well (Richey and Ponte, 4-5). The organization also increases participation and awareness by branding the movement as cool through coverage in fashion news outlets such as Bustle, Refinery29, and Vice News, who refer to it as a movement that “brings an element of fun and creativity [to the topic of supply chain transparency]” (Refinery29). This adds to the domino effect in consumer engagement with the social media campaign, helping the movement to achieve its goals of gaining consumer awareness.
In addition to raising consumer awareness of worker conditions, the campaign renders the person posting an active individual in the movement, making garment worker’s interests transnational and visible to the brand. The hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes asks brands to pay attention—to provide supply chain information and implement or reinforce their corporate social responsibility—through global media coverage. Fashion Revolution’s creation of a conversation between the brands and the consumers about labor condition is evidenced by brand responses to Twitter posts asking about product sources on Fashion Revolution’s website. This can be seen through Belgian Twitter user Thiaske’s post, which engages G-Star Raw about where and how they produce their garments as well as through G-Star Raw’s response featured on the organization page, announcing their corporate social responsibility program and their dedication to producing exclusively in the United States and sweatshop free. Hence, Fashion Revolution’s campaign engages corporations and starts a public conversation about supply chain practices such that brands cannot ignore them. This holds brands accountable and presents an opportunity to either reinforce their corporate social responsibility programs or creates pressure to implement better labor conditions or face a loss in revenue.
Fashion Revolution produces “causumers” who seek to make the world a better place through their spending power and renders all future purchases of clothing for these individuals political. (Richey and Ponte, 152). The movement creates informed citizens who have the power to not only raise their voices to hold brands accountable but citizens who feel empowered to make a difference though their social capital and purchasing power (Richey and Ponte, 156). Fashion Revolution promotes, through both the global day of action and the social media campaign, the notion that one can save the world by being informed and by consuming thoughtfully, thus creating a sense of political engagement through consumption.
By promoting the notion that consumers are responsible for knowing how their clothing was produced, the movement prompts one to raise their voice through their purchasing decision and pressure on brands to produce ethically. This message is highlighted in the “2 Euro T-Shirt – A Social Experiment” video, as the machine reveals the low-wages and long hours needed to sell a T-Shirt for two euros. Jill Esblenshade has tracked Western activist efforts against sweatshops by enforcing monitoring in factories by third parties, and she asserts that part of the solution to better working conditions for workers is for individuals to recognize their role as consumers in a privileged marketing and use this to influence the adoption of anti-sweatshops measures. By prompting Western consumers to leverage their buying power, Fashion Revolution becomes a concrete example of thinking globally and acting locally. Thus, the movement in this campaign urges these new activists in the West to put pressure on corporations to acknowledge and leverage their role as global economic actors in order to improve and create opportunities for workers abroad or face angry customers (Esblenshade, 466).
This accountability put on corporations by their own consumers pressures brands to investigate the labor conditions in the factories where their goods are manufactured and to take a stronger stance when it comes to corporate social responsibility. This is particularly seen through the addition of brand responses to the Fashion Revolution activists on social media with the hashtag #IMadeYourClothes accompanied by photos of factory workers holding up signs that say so. Thus, the movement successfully achieves its goal of starting a conversation between consumer and producer through consumer pressure and the power of their wallets. The #IMadeYourClothes social media responses and the posters that say this are produced by the corporations producing the clothing and are made available to brands on Fashion Revolution’s website, with clear instructions on how to take the photo and how to send it in. Fashion Revolution provides brands an opportunity to be transparent about how they are producing and where, as well as an opportunity to present their corporate social responsibility programs. However, while corporate responsibility programs may have positive effects socially or environmentally, these programs double as marketing (Richey and Ponte, 149). Given that the #IMadeYourClothes campaign reaches factory workers but is mediated by their employers and advertises the participating brands’ corporate social responsibility program, Fashion Revolution holds brands accountable but also improves a participating brand’s image without challenging any of its operation. For example, Fashion Revolution’s statements that brands such as G-Star Raw produce sweatshop-free ultimately leads to better brand equity for the company and perception in the eyes of the consumer without compelling the brand to implement any changes and without verifying that such statements are true.
Although the campaign’s success mobilizing individuals and holding companies accountable, Fashion Revolution fails to pressure brands to enforce healthy conditions in factories and thus fails to create real change for workers in Bangladesh and around the world. Approaching four years after the Rana Plaza disaster, Fashion Revolution has not been successful in bringing media to the disaster in Bangladesh, as the movement website alone does not mention the disaster outside of its mission statement, where it is referred to as the impetus for their call to action. Thus, Fashion Revolution becomes an example of public outcry immediately after a disaster as well as of the public’s short-term memory. Moreover, the donations Fashion Revolution collects have not made a substantial difference in changing labor conditions. The organization states that donations to the organization, suggested at three Euros, go toward Fashion Revolution’s educational online resources, but the specific materials or programs the donations support is unclear, as is whether these educational resources ever, directly or indirectly, contribute to change in factory practices.
Another limitation is that the movement’s dialogue between consumers and producers is mediated by the brands who respond to the question of “who made my clothes,” and thus does not indicate proof of change. The brand responses, including the #IMadeYourClothes campaign, are not evidence of safe working conditions, as they are responses produced by the corporation itself. This renders the campaign ineffective, as communication is mediated by the brand rather than coming from actual workers on the factory floor, thus making the horizontal conversation weak and false. Moreover, most brands argue that they have little share of the production in these factories and thus cannot change factory practices (Esblenshade, 467). This refers to the fragmented, contracted and subcontracted) nature of the supply chain in apparel that allows companies to distance themselves from unsafe labor practices. Moreover, a single factory may produce for multiple brands, resulting in a lack of a sense of particular responsibility from corporations. Despite corporate social responsibility programs and corporate-made responses to Fashion Revolution’s prompts, no brand’s messages have indicated changes in operations. Stephanie Luce has research on labor-community coalitions and the limitations of labor activism, arguing that most corporate social responsibility programs are not indicative of improving labor standards but are marketing tools manipulated by brands without implementing any changes (Luce, 168). Moreover, this horizontal conversation the #IMadeYourClothes campaign seeks to create is limited, as in order for workers to be able to participate they would need access to social media and digital technology, items that, ironically, their low-wage labor may inhibit them from possessing. Hence, Fashion Revolution does not actively change the reality of the sweatshop, as it is a passive movement that relies on a conversation mediated by brands rather than interacting with the workers themselves.
While the movement does hold brands accountable thanks to an increasing visibility between workers and consumers, the articulation of worker interests and worker responses by Western consumers in solidarity and by Western corporations, rather than from workers themselves, renders implementation of fair working conditions impossible, as the workers have not been empowered or gained respect. When it comes to labor conditions in the fashion industry, despite advocacy, implementation remains elusive. Fashion Revolution’s creation of consumer activists, who defend worker interests on their behalf to corporationsreates a focus on consumer power and thus neglects worker power (Luce, 172). Fashion Revolution becomes ineffective, as it relies on consumer power to be a solution for a lack of worker power. However, consumer power cannot outweigh worker power, as even if awareness increases and policies are created to protect their interests, the likelihood that the victory will translate into an enforceable standard remains low. This is because in the eyes of corporations and factory owners, workers were not given authority and do not have the power to demand enforcement of these policies in the factories (Luce, 172). While consumer solidarity is a step in the right direction, it cannot be the solution to the mistreatment of workers. Hence, Fashion Revolution lacks the resources and connections with workers on the factory floor to actively ensure enforcement and create change, outside of starting a conversation in the Western world. Thus, in order for the movement to be successful, it requires the horizontal conversation to be a lot stronger and engage and empower workers.
Despite Fashion Revolution’s capacity to create transnational labor solidarity, forging a horizontal conversation, and leveraging consumer purchasing power to hold brands accountable, enforcement remains a problem due to a lack of worker representation. Through its social media campaign and partnerships, Fashion Revolution mobilizes western consumers and the power of their voices to condemn unfair and unsafe practices in the garment industry. The movement engages brands publicly and starts a conversation about unfair practices and accountability. It equally places a portion of responsibility on the shoulders of the consumer and fosters politically engaged citizens, who, by engaging with policies, challenge brands to change their practices. The movement emphasizes accountability, providing brands with the opportunity to reinforce or create corporate social responsibility programs. However, Fashion Revolution does little to change conditions for workers, as it is unsuccessful in pressuring the enforcement of policy, relying on consumer power to articulate worker interests in order to start the conversation with corporations about change, rather than empowering workers to stand up for their rights. The movement creates passive awareness for consumers and fosters passive responses from brands. Thus, in order for Fashion Revolution to reach their goals of creating change, implementation must be the focus. The solution to worker exploitation in factories resides in more than just a stronger horizontal conversation but in a shift of focus on redefining power relationships between brands and workers such that workers have a voice to enforce and enact change themselves.
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