LONDON, United Kingdom — Sunday will mark the three-year anniversary of Rana Plaza, the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry, which killed 1,134 people when a building in Bangladesh housing several garment factories collapsed.
Many saw this event as a wake-up call for fashion. And yet, the industry is still plagued by systemic issues: uneven and poorly enforced legislation on wages, working hours and health and safety; and opaque supply chains, where sub-contracting makes it easy for factories and brands to pass on responsibility for the conditions in which their products are made. The sheer scale of the garment industry — the market for apparel is worth $1.3 trillion and employs tens of millions of people — means the social impact of these problems is vast.
Fashion’s environmental record raises more red flags: the clothing industry has been cited as the world’s second biggest polluter after oil. Its businesses churn out clothes at an alarming rate — Americans now buy five-times as much clothing as they did in 1980. According to the WWF, it takes up to 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt. And many simply go to waste: in the US alone, 10.5 million tonnes of clothing is sent to landfills each year.
The three years since Rana Plaza, behemoths like H&M, Nike and Kering have ploughed resources into sustainability reports, prizes and projects. Meanwhile, brands including Gap Inc., Inditex and Primark have signed up to the The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, two multi-stakeholder groups set up to tackle health and safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry. But how much progress has actually been made?