There’s a scene in the documentary The True Cost that gets me every time – I get choked up and I can’t stop the tears from streaming down my face.
It’s hard not be upset for pretty much the entirety of Andrew Morgan’s powerful examination of the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry. In fact, there are several scenes in which my strongest impulse is to punch the person on screen as they attempt to justify the fast fashion system and its associated costs on the grounds of the economic benefits being generated. Abysmally low wages, unsafe conditions and factory disasters are all excused because of the ‘needed jobs they create for people with no alternatives’. This 'sweatshops are good' line makes me wild.
But the scene in which I cannot stop the tears spilling over is that in which 23-year-old Bangladeshi garment factory worker Shima Akhter is about to leave her young daughter Nadia with her parents to return to Dhaka and her factory job. Bright, bubbly and extremely personable, Shima – for me, at least – is the human face of a very real tragedy.
As Shima so simply yet eloquently puts it:
There is no limit to the struggle of Bangladeshi workers. Every day we wake up early in the morning, we go to the factory, and work really hard all day. And with all the hard labour we make the clothing. And that’s what people wear.
People have no idea how difficult it is for us to make the clothing. They only buy it and wear it.
I believe these clothes are produced by our blood. A lot of garment workers die in different accidents. Like a year ago, there was a collapse in Rana Plaza. A lot of workers died there. It is very painful for us.
I don’t want anyone wearing anything which is produced by our blood.
We want better working conditions, so that everyone becomes aware. I don’t want another owner like the owner of Rana Plaza to take such a risk and force the workers to work in such conditions. So that no more workers die like that. So that no more mothers lose their child like this.
I never want this, I want the owners to be a little more aware and look after us.
As filmmaker Andrew Morgan explains, Shima is one of about 40 million garment factory workers in the world, approximately 4 million of whom are in Bangladesh, working in 5,000 factories, making clothing for major Western brands. More than 85% of these workers are women, and with a minimum wage of less than USD $3 per day, they are some of the lowest-paid garment workers in the world.
Nadia had been living with Shima in Dhaka, often spending the day with her mother in the factory:
… but it’s terribly hot inside the factory. And there are chemicals inside the factory which are very harmful to children. So I can’t keep her here in Dhaka with me …
A garment worker since the age of 12, Shima formed a union at the factory at which she is employed, and has been its president since inception. But her choice to stand up for her rights and the rights of her fellow workers has come at a cost. In Shima's words:
We submitted a list of demands and the managers received it. After they received the list, we had an altercation with the managers. After the altercation, the managers locked the door. And along with them, 30 to 40 staffers attacked us and beat us up.
They used chairs, sticks, scales and things like scissors to beat us up. Mostly they kicked and punched us and banged our heads on the walls. They hit us mostly in the chest and abdomen.
According to Baptist World Aid Australia, in the last month, Bangladesh has experienced its largest industrial protests since those sparked by the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, in which 1,134 garment workers lost their lives. In an update released this week, it was revealed that workers’ demands for a living wage – a basic human right – have been met with ‘heavy-handed pushback’, with both factory owners and the government refusing to negotiate. Police have been called in to disperse crowds and arrest protestors. Workers have been dismissed and there are rumours that a blacklist of workers is being circulated amongst factories to stop protest organisers from working in the industry.
In an article published on theguardian.com on January 8, journalist Michael Safi describes the pre-Christmas industrial unrest in Dhaka as ‘particularly provocative’, with factory owners fearing that lucrative contracts with huge Western brands could go unfulfilled. He described a situation in which police used rubber bullets to disperse the crowds and arrested at least 30 people, ‘charging many under controversial wartime laws designed to quash threats to state security’.
The government has indicated that a wage review for garment workers will not occur until at least 2018.
Livia Firth, Creative Director of sustainability consulting firm Eco-Age and founder of the The Green Carpet Challenge (GCC), believes we are profiting from people’s fundamental need to work, likening garment workers in developing countries to ‘slaves’. While acknowledging the need to work, she adds: ‘They need to be treated with the same respect that we treat our children, our friends. They’re not different from us’.
Addressing the 2014 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Ms Firth posed a couple of simple questions:
- You have these huge companies going to the factory in Bangladesh, placing an order for 1.5 million jeans for 30 cents each, 50 cents each, how can you make it ethical?
- Also, from a consumer point of view, is it really democratic to buy a t-shirt for $5, a pair of jeans for $20, or are they taking us for a ride? Because they are making us believe we are rich or wealthy because we can buy a lot, but in fact, they’re making us poorer, and the only person who is becoming richer is the owner of the fast fashion brand.
She concludes very simply, with ‘So that makes me a little bit angry’. And so, too, it makes me a little bit angry. More than a little bit, in fact.
I’m old enough to recall how things worked before fast fashion existed, a time when clothes might have cost a little more, but were worn again and again before being ‘retired’. Hand-me-downs were normal. Closets overflowing with $5 tops – many never worn before being chucked – were definitely not. ‘Disposable’ was not a term associated with clothes, shoes or bags, and wearing the same outfit to more than one party was not regarded as social suicide.
Today, though, as consumers we’re bombarded with the message that the way to true happiness is via consuming more and more stuff. And we’ve truly embraced that message, buying more than 400% more clothing now than we did just 20 years ago. But, honestly, at some point you’ve surely just got to stop and ask yourself, at what cost?
I first watched The True Cost last year. I was at a crossroads in my life and had been toying with a few ideas of what to do next, but while watching the film, knew without a doubt that starting Ecoture was the right thing. I’m not naïve enough to think that we’re going to singlehandedly change the world, but it’s something, a step in the right direction. And every little bit helps. By stocking only ethically and sustainably manufactured products, we’re aiming to make it easier for consumers – me and you – to make better buying decisions.
Hence our tagline – Think. Act. Shop Consciously.
The workers that make our clothes are demanding change. They know it’s unfair that they are left in poverty, while brands, factory owners and we – the consumers – reap the benefits in high profits and low prices. We need to stand with them to bring about that change.
In conclusion, if you haven’t already watched The True Cost, I urge you to do so. It’s truly powerful and might just change the way you think about the clothes you wear. In Australia, it can be streamed on Netflix.
Also, keep an eye out in coming weeks for details of Ecoture's new Waste Not, Want Not initiative. We’re really excited about it, and are sure you will be too. We’re busy sorting out the final details and will be ready to launch soon.
In the meantime, maybe take a few minutes to read Lucy Siegle’s article 5 Tips for Shopping Smarter, check out the details of Baptist World Aid’s Behind The Barcode campaign, or join the Fashion Revolution. Maybe do all three.
Until next time,
Image Credit: Baptist World Aid Australia