By Lisa Wagner
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the tragic event of Rana Plaza. On April 24, 2013, the eight-story garment factory building in Bangladesh collapsed in a preventable accident what has been called one of the world’s worst industrial tragedies. Over 1,100 people lost their lives and another 2,400 were injured, leaving countless first-aiders and families traumatized to this day.
Twenty-four hours before the collapse workers were evacuated from the building due to cracks in the walls and yet pushed to work again the next day. That ghastly mistake is symptomatic of wider pressures felt by textile production countries worldwide. In fact, Rana Plaza was neither the first nor the last garment factory disaster. But the media frenzy following the tragedy eventually exposed the widespread lack of transparency across global fashion supply chains hiding issues that can ultimately cost lives.
In the wake of Rana Plaza UK-based activists Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro founded Fashion Revolution. The global campaign mobilises consumers, brands and policymakers through research, education and advocacy to fight the lack of visibility of garment workers worldwide. Over the course of the last decade, it has grown to become the world’s largest fashion activism movement. In 2018 Fashion Revolution published a manifesto of ten points that serve as building blocks for radical change and receive special attention for the tenth anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse. The ultimate vision is a global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit.
In the meantime the global fashion industry has continued to rely on mainly voluntary commitments which have long preserved the status quo. Despite increased public interest and knowledge through campaigns like Fashion Revolution, a lack of health and safety as well as living wages, freedom of association, and collective bargaining continue due to poor progress on transparency in these areas.
OEKO-TEX® recognized early on that a critical first step towards accountability is greater transparency. In fact, the same year Rana Plaza collapsed, we launched the OEKO-TEX® STeP certification that replaced our Standard 1000 which has already been established 18 years prior. STeP stands for Sustainable Textile & Leather Production and is a modular certification system for production facilities in the textile and leather industry. Besides implementing environmentally friendly production processes the goal of STeP has always been to promote socially responsible working conditions at production sites by checking working times, wage payments and social insurance as well as compliance with safety, hygiene and medical requirements.
The target groups for STeP certification are textile and leather manufacturers as well as brands and retailers. And while we are delighted that over 1,000 facilities have achieved the OEKO-TEX® STeP certification, meaning more than one million people working under safe and responsible conditions according to the UN human rights conventions and receiving fair wages, we are well aware that there is still a huge gap of transparency within the wider fields of the industry. Even though Fashion Revolution‘s Global Fashion Transparency Index’s findings highlight an increased level of transparency since its introduction in 2017, the latest report states that 50% of major brands still disclose no information about their supply chains and only 13% of brands disclose how many of their supplier facilities have trade unions.
For a true systemic change legislative and regulative measures are inevitable. Thanks to initiatives like Fashion Revolution the pressure on policy-related and corporate decision-makers is growing and slowly but steadily their actions give justice to greater transparency. A major milestone was achieved just weeks after the Rana Plaza tragedy when the Bangladesh Accord on Health and Safety, now known as the International Accord on Fire and Building Safety, was signed. With the landmark agreement global fashion brands acknowledged their direct responsibility for factory conditions in their supply chains for the first time. It is the very first legally binding brand agreement on worker health and safety in the fashion industry. Formed with the understanding that voluntary measures alone are not enough because they lack transparency and enforceability, the Accord is unique in being supported by all key labour rights stakeholders in Bangladesh and beyond. Over 200 brands are currently signed up. The most important agreement to date inspired other agreements to protect garment workers such as the Pakistan Accord.
As sad as it is to acknowledge it took a tragic incident to drive change, it is also a great development for Bangladesh and other countries in South Asia. Yet there is more action to be done to improve the life and working conditions of global garment workers. On February 23, 2022, the European Commission presented a proposal for a directive on sustainable corporate governance affecting businesses of all industries. The draft of the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) contains both human rights and environmental due diligence obligations as well as requirements for responsible corporate governance. Businesses should identify, take preventive and remedial actions and report on human rights and certain environmental risks in their value chains. The due diligence obligations relate to both the upstream and downstream value chain. The upstream includes all activities of a company to manufacture a product (e.g. raw material sourcing) and to provide services. The downstream chain includes all activities of a company's business partners with regard to sales, transport, storage or disposal.
Soon the European Council will start negotiations about its final directive with the European Parliament and the Commission with the aim of passing the EU Supply Chain Law in 2023 if possible. After the directive has come into force, the member states must transpose it into national law within two years at the latest. This means the German supply chain law which came into force on January 1, 2023 may have to be adapted to the directive. Since the voluntary commitment of the participating nations to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) has widely failed, the European law could be a groundbreaking step towards accountability by allowing other countries to follow suit.
Reflecting on the past decade, we are both inspired by the progress and reminded of the changes still needed throughout the entire global fashion industry. While the rise of ultra fast fashion with its four-digit growth numbers and opaque business practices feels like a set-back, rapid technological advances and growing societal and political demands continue to inspire hope towards greater transparency. At the same time the crises of the past years have confirmed the sad but hopeful learnings of Rana Plaza: While a disaster reveals existing vulnerabilities, it can also accelerate overcoming them. By jointly continuing to act and supporting the fashion revolution on a daily basis we can pay tribute to the lives lost and destroyed in any fashion industry tragedy and prevent further events from happening.
Whether you are a consumer, a brand, retailer or policymaker, on the Fashion Revolution website you can find multiple ways to take action and support greater fairness in fashion such as demanding a living wage for the people who make our clothes by signing the Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign.
Photo credits: NYU Stern BHR via Flickr