Learning from Rana Plaza: toward a real revolution in the textile industry

Last Friday marked the two year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which over one thousand garment workers were killed. Although not the first incident of its kind, the number of dead was so high that it sparked international outrage, as well as some soul searching among consumers in the West, as many of our high-street brands had produced their collections in this particular factory.

The date of the tragedy, 24th April, is now known as Fashion Revolution Day. NGOs and progressive fashion brands use the date to raise awareness of exploitation within the textile industry and to call for higher standards in terms of working conditions.

It is nice that something positive has emerged from this terrible tragedy, and that the textile industry seems to be moving (albeit it slowly) toward a more ethical way of doing business. However, amidst the many discussions about the need for change, something crucial seems to have been missed, something that if addressed, could bring about a real revolution in the textile industry.

The thing that is rarely mentioned in discussions about Rana Plaza is the wider context. Rana Plaza may be a symptom of an exploitative fashion industry, but it is also a symptom of a problem that is much larger than the fashion industry. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory could have happened at any number of factories across Dhaka. A survey in the wake of the collapse found that three-fifths of garment factories in Bangladesh are at risk of collapse - mostly, it seems, due to poor construction. Even the Bangladeshi prime minister has admitted that 90% of Dhaka's buildings do not meet the country's official safety codes. This lack of adherence to building regulations is not unusual in countries like Bangladesh that are experiencing rapid urbanisation. Landlessness and a lack of employment opportunities in rural areas are causing huge numbers of people to migrate to cities to find work. In Bangladesh, for example, it is estimated that 35,000 people are moving to its cities every week. For many migrants, the move results in more money and a better life. For women especially, a job in a Dhaka factory can give them their first taste of freedom. It can also, of course, leave them vulnerable to exploitation and the physical dangers of working in a city that has been built too quickly and with little attention to safety.

While urban employment can provide many benefits to the poor, the current situation in which people can only find work in cities is not sustainable nor desirable. People should not be forced to spend months away from their families in order to survive, and they should not have to work in dangerous conditions. But that is the situation in many low-income countries as there are few livelihood opportunities in rural areas. This is a huge problem and there seem to be few options for solving it.

Creating jobs in rural areas is difficult because of poor infrastructure, transport connections, and often a lack of electricity. However, while rural areas have many disadvantages, they also have some benefits that can be harnessed, in particular, by the textile industry. Textile production is labour-intensive and rural areas have an abundance of labour – many of it skilled in artisanal techniques. A lack of electricity is no impediment to textile production as textiles can be made by hand, and often look nicer when done so. Rural areas are also sources of natural fibres and dyes, many of which can be grown alongside food crops, creating a diverse and sustainable farming system. By harnessing these benefits, the textile industry could create sustainable livelihoods in rural areas, and thus help stem the flow of migrants to cities. This would represent a systemic answer to a systemic problem. However, due to the extra costs involved, it would require a profound cultural shift among brands and consumers toward an appreciation of quality over quantity. It would require, in short, a 'fashion revolution.'

At Ecosophy, we are attempting to show how this might be possible. We currently partner with NGOs in rural India and Bangladesh that use hand weaving and organic production techniques to create sustainable jobs in their local areas. These are not charitable projects, but development projects with huge potential for job creation – if a market for their textiles can be found. That market is currently small, but we believe that it will grow significantly once consumers start to recognise the beauty of these textiles and the power they have to transform lives.

Discussions about how the textile industry should change often seem to lead nowhere, as it is so hard to imagine how fast fashion can ever be ethical and the UK's appetite for fast fashion does not seem to be waning. But just as the market for organic food has exploded in recent years, the market for organic textiles could do the same. By paying a little extra for textiles that are beautiful and sustainably produced, we can help bring about a real fashion revolution.