Environmental Justice and Fashion: Rana Plaza
Updated: Apr 19, 2021
On April 24th, 2013, the world was shocked when the unimaginable happened. An eight-story cement garment factory in Bangladesh, brimming with young garment workers, collapsed after structural damage had been ignored by managers.
April 24th, 2021 marks the 8th anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy. With the rise in popularity of "sustainability," it has become easier to link the environmental impacts of the fashion industry and the monumental crisis of climate change. However, there is another crisis that is easily buried under the polarized rhetoric on the news, and that is the issue of workers rights - especially in the fashion industry. Today, our clothes are touched by many hands and shipped many miles before they reach our storefronts or our doorsteps. One of the places that clothing inevitably reaches, is Bangladesh.
In the manufacturing district of Savar, Bangladesh, tens of thousands of people wake up every morning and make their living by working long hours in sweltering factories. Industry makes up over half of this district’s economy, including garment factories, footwear factories, textile mills, and printing and dying factories. Bangladesh is one of the largest fast fashion exporters of Western fashion brands, second only to China, and the export of this ready-made clothing is the main source of Bangladesh’s rapidly growing economy. While the economy is growing, the workers who find themselves in factories every day barely make enough money to survive.
On April 24th, 2013, there were 3,500 workers in the building of Rana Plaza. Early that morning, workers were threatened with the loss of their monthly pay if they did not proceed into the building and continue to work. Despite the cracks in the walls of the massive structure that had been identified the previous day, the workers filled the building with what seemed like no other option. During the morning rush hour, the building collapsed. 1,135 of those workers were killed in the aftermath. The scene looked like one after a war bombing, cement crumbling around the foundation where the building used to stand. The building was constructed with substandard materials and in blatant disregard for building codes, yet the warning signs of disaster were ignored by managers trying to meet the quota of the day. A report blamed the mayor for wrongly granting construction approvals and recommended charges against the building's owner, and the owners of the five garment factories, but there was another invisible enemy that day. This enemy was imperceptible to those in Bangladesh who lost their mothers, daughters, and friends that day. The disaster was a result of the machine of neoliberal capitalism, consisting of a multitude of decisions, made by brands around the world, by the owners of these garment factories, and by the local governments of Bangladesh to cut costs and increase their profits. Beneath the rubble of that building erupted a worldwide story about the atrocities that take place in countries overseas, just so that us "lucky" ones in the Western world get our cheap, trendy clothing. Eighty percent of the workers in Rana Plaza that day were women. Most of them between the ages of 18 and 20, sometimes younger. Some argue that the textile industry has been an important means of economic security for women in Bangladesh, however, the reality is these women have been forced into working in factories due to structurally created poverty, and getting paid 22 cents an hour is hardly enough to assert economic security. Often in this line of work, the industry thrives on the backs of underpaid, hard-working women. The reality is, fast fashion is a feminist issue.
But how could this happen? Or better yet, who let this happen? This tragedy was the culmination of a multitude of decisions made over the last century - decisions to cut costs and to increase profits. In the early twentieth century, the apparel industry’s purpose was solely to fill a need, but it has now evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry where its purpose is to artificially create the desire for more and more clothing. The rapid shift of custom-made to ready-made clothes during the industrial revolution was the first step in this process. It was stimulated by the growth of the middle class and a large increase in foreign labor, bringing with them the skills of tailoring from Europe. Working conditions declined as manufacturers took advantage of the increasing pools of immigrants, influencing the rise of sweatshop labor.
The next step in this process was due to the social and cultural changes after World War II. Factories grew out of necessity during the war, and mass production of everything, including clothing, began in the United States. Companies began to refer to people as consumers, and these consumers were part of a blossoming middle class. They had more of an expendable income to spend on things like clothing. Since then, there has been a steady increase in the amount of clothing that people buy each year.
Cut to the late 1970s, where economic reform and deregulation thrived and neoliberal policies encouraged untethered growth and outsourcing of labor. Companies around the world began outsourcing their manufacturing to countries that offer the most inexpensive labor. This labor was so inexpensive because there are rarely any labor laws to protect and compensate workers, there are few environmental regulations, and sometimes those in power are favorable towards Western interests at the expense of their own people. The hyper-competitive spirit of capitalism has created a race to the bottom, where retailers charge the lowest price they possibly can, concealing the true cost of creating that garment.
It is no secret that the fast fashion industry has exploded over the last two decades. With it, comes immense environmental degradation and social harm. Neoliberalist policies and trade agreements have accelerated the exploitation of the planet, and of the people who make our clothes. People are shopping at an exponentially increasing rate, and clothing is getting cheaper at an ever decreasing rate. When you buy a $5 t-shirt from a fast fashion store, that money doesn’t even begin to cover the value or the true cost of that garment. This is the world we live in today.
However, in the last few years, the desire for “slow fashion” or “ethical fashion” has increased, and consumers around the globe are putting pressure on huge fashion houses to clean up these terrible practices. But it has not been enough yet, the need for exponential growth and profit has risen above the need to do better by their workers. Through a series of articles, I will attempt to uncover some of the tragic truths that are camouflaged in cheap and trendy clothing. By examining this issue through the lens of environmental justice, I hope to shed light on the reality of this industry, and provide opportunities to change it.
Environmental justice can be defined as the equal treatment of all people, regardless of race, class, socioeconomic status, gender, age, etc. with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies (EPA). This academic definition basically states that no one, regardless of their identity, should have to suffer from environmental hazards caused by industry, transportation, waste, etc. Environmental justice can only be achieved when all people receive the same degree of protection from environmental hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process is given to all to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work. Environmental justice advocates work to ensure that no community or group of people is unfairly burdened with pollution or other environmental harms, such as risks in the workplace, and this is achieved through social justice and ecological sustainability. This movement has helped redefine the environment from the green forests and the blue oceans, to the bodies we inhabit, the homes we live in, and the places we work, play, and worship.
The Environmental Justice movement got its name in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982, after the protest of the expansion of a PCB landfill. Warren County was a predominantly black community, and it had been chosen for the site of a toxic dumping ground of PCB contaminated soil. PCBs, otherwise known as Polychlorinated biphenyl, were widely used in things such as coolant fluids, but soon after it was discovered that they were intense environmental toxins. These toxins are persisting in nature, which mean they take an inordinate amount of time to break down, and they were banned from manufacture in America in 1978. The EPA later found that these toxins are carcinogens to humans and animals. So in response to the dumping ground in Warren County, the community staged a massive sit-in protest, where over 500 people were arrested. While they were unsuccessful in stopping the expansion of the toxic landfill, this protest marks the beginnings of the modern Environmental Justice movement. Since then, studies have been conducted to see the correlation between race, class, immigration status, and exposure and proximity to pollutants.
Now, environmental racism is understood to encompass everything from the harms experienced due to the siting of industrial uses; to proximity to power plants and factories; to higher exposure to emissions from mobile sources of pollution, like cars, trucks, and ships; to the disproportionate harm that disasters like Hurricane Katrina do to Black communities.
While the example of Warren County is in the United States, the manufacturing of most of our clothing is not happening in the United States. And the manufacturing processes themselves are not completely harmless either. Toxic environmental chemicals are pervasive worldwide, and they threaten healthy human reproduction. Industrial chemicals are used and discarded in every aspect of daily life and are ubiquitous in food, water, air, and consumer products. Exposure to environmental chemicals and metals permeates all parts of life across the globe.
There are 8,000 known synthetic chemicals and harmful substances used to process textiles. Most of these chemicals are known to be carcinogenic or hormone disruptors. These chemicals are used to soften or dye the fabric, exposing the workers at the textile mills, as well as jeopardizing local water supplies and irrigation systems, and then those toxic fabrics must be handled by workers like those in Rana Plaza. Not to mention, small amounts of the toxins are deposited onto the consumer’s largest organ -- our skin -- after every wear.
Dye Factory in Shaoxing: A plant with five dyeing machines will need about 250kg of dye, along with other additives. Aproximately 2500kg of dyestuff paste circulates the plant every day. This plant is located within the Binhai Industrial Zone. Photo: Greenpeace
Some of the most common toxins that we come across in clothing include:
Pesticides from the growth of cotton. Cotton (that is not produced organically) accounts for 25% of the world’s insecticide use. If a substance is toxic to another living species, there is a chance it will be toxic to humans as well. Some of these chemicals include silicone waxes, petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde. These pesticides can be transferred to the fibers that create our favorite cotton t-shirt, but even small doses of pesticide exposure has been linked to brain, fetal damage, and sterility in humans. While there are numerous areas in the world that are known for growing cotton, studies have been done in the cotton growing regions of Pakistan to understand what some of the effects of pesticide use are on the female cotton pickers. Studies show that 74% female cotton pickers are moderately pesticide-poisoned and the remaining quarter has reached precarious levels of poisoning in Pakistan, and the severity of problem is further aggravated due to negligible use of preventive measures among pickers.
Toxic finishing treatments like urea resins and formaldehyde is often used on “wrinkle free” clothes. These treatments add to the crispness and fictitious ‘freshness’ of new clothing, yet these chemicals have been linked to dermatitis and lung cancer. The most common means of exposure is by breathing air containing off-gassed formaldehyde fumes, but it is also easily absorbed through the skin, such as handling the fabric to cut and sew clothing, or just wearing clothing! Through one study done on women workers exposed to formaldehyde, it was determined that an association was observed between exposure to formaldehyde and an increased risk of spontaneous abortion.
Triclosan and nanoparticle silver, which are two chemicals used to make clothing “anti-bacterial” or “anti-odor”. These performance fabrics are coated in these chemicals that are linked to liver and inhalation toxicity, and hormone disruption and DNA damage.
Aromatic amines and p-Phenylenediamine (PPD) are chemicals found in dark dyes and denim. They have been linked to cancer and can trigger skin allergies that cause contact dermatitis.
Chromium, a heavy metal used to dye cow hides to make leather. Chromium speeds up the process, but workers in tanneries have experienced everything from rashes, permanent skin bleaching, nosebleeds and respiratory problems to lung cancer and the alteration of genetic material.
Not only are these toxins known to wreak havoc on human bodies, but they do the same to the environment. It is estimated that 20% of the world’s water pollution is due to the dyeing and finishing processes of the fashion industry. It threatens the local water systems near factories and seeps into the soil to contaminate agriculture. These chemicals contribute greatly to the statement that the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world.
There is not a shadow of a doubt that there are extremely negative health impacts to the workers that must handle these chemicals and these fabrics. Now we must take into account the factor that women make up a majority of the garment workforce.
Biologically, women are more at risk when being exposed to toxins and heavy metals than others. Toxins can seep into the fatty tissues, and are stored within the body for years. These toxins can also get passed on to children through breast feeding. Even small exposures to toxic chemicals during critical periods of development, such as pregnancy, can trigger adverse health consequences such as impacts on fertility and pregnancy, neurodevelopment, and cancer. Some of the most sacred and natural processes are being marred by the use of these chemicals. And while the immediate effects may seem only harmful to women, it will be disastrous for all humans inevitably.
It is also extremely important to note that a majority of the women garment workers are women of color. This intersectionality of garment workers’ identities must be acknowledged to understand the bigger picture of our society. Exposure to toxic environmental chemicals and related health outcomes are inequitably distributed within and between countries; universally, the consequences of exposure are disproportionately burdened by lower class people of color. The present day environmental injustices taking place within the fashion industry are due to ripple effects of capitalism and subsequently white, patriarchal, colonialism. Our society’s obsession with capitalism allows for the continued exploitation of marginalized communities and the conquering of their land, which justifies their dehumanization in the name of profit.
We have the privilege to choose what clothing we buy and the opportunity to use our voices, money, and votes to make choices that put pressure on politicians and companies to change their ways. The workers who make our clothing overseas are experiencing environmental injustices - unsafe working conditions, exposure to toxins, payment that is less than a living wage, and a premature likelihood to death and injury because of their occupation. The tragedy at Rana Plaza was not the first time that this type of horrific event took place, in fact it’s a story that has also echoed with alarming consistency throughout the history of the fashion industry. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York killed 146 women, many of them jumping from the flames to their deaths. They were mostly young Jewish and Italian women, migrant workers earning a paltry $15 a week. These are two among many incidents of environmental injustices taking place within the garment industry.
So whose responsibility is it to ensure that this does not happen? Truthfully, that is a difficult question to answer. While it is important that we as consumers and citizens attempt to find alternatives to purchasing fast fashion, on a more important scale, it is the designers and brands responsibility to ensure that their manufacturing processes are ethical and safe. It is also the responsibility of the governments of countries where our clothing is being made to make sure that their citizens are not exposed to unnecessary risks.
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