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Davis, California

Monday, April 15, 2024

Sustainable Agriculture: Cost of Fashion

It’s difficult to consume clothing mindlessly when pictures of the people who died in the process of sewing your crappy T-shirt are projected onto the store’s building. Such was the tactic of a group of protesters outside of New York Fashion Week who aimed to highlight recent industrial disasters in the garment industry.

Last April in Bangladesh, an eight-story building housing thousands of workers and several garment factories collapsed, leaving approximately 1,135 people dead and 2,500 injured. Cracks had been discovered in the structure the day before, but workers were forced to return to work despite recommendations to close the building.The Rana Plaza collapse is being called the worst accident in the history of the garment industry.

The Cost of Fashion, a protest group spawned from Occupy, teamed up with guerilla street artist collective, The Illuminator, to use projectors to light up city buildings with images of the victims of Rana Plaza. Their goal is to shed light on the human rights and labor violations commonly found in the garment factories that supply Western brands.

As westerners, our relationship to the global garment industry is as consumers, which means we don’t often see the sea of hands a garment passes through before we buy it. Many of these industrial processes occur in countries with little or no environmental standards and unsafe working conditions.

The global garment industry is extremely lucrative with factories supplying large retailers mainly within the U.S. and Europe. The Western World’s insatiable desire to consume, a lack of or poorly enforced regulations and low wages make it an extremely profitable industry — bringing in trillions of dollars each year.

This past November, five months after the collapse and a month after a garment factory fire claimed nine more lives, thousands of garment workers protested low wages on the streets of Bangladesh. The average Bangladeshi garment worker earned just $38 a month. These protests shut down nearly 250 garment factories and were met with rubber bullets, tear gas and the death of at least two more people.

The Bangladeshi government conceded to a 77 percent increase in wages — from $38 to $68 a month or roughly $0.39 an hour. The new minimum is still the lowest wage paid to garment workers in the world. These dehumanizing wages allow us to buy cheap, dispensable clothing at stores like H&M, JC Penney and Walmart — all retailers who contract work from Bangladesh.

The lives of Bangladeshi workers are intricately linked to the desires of Western consumers. Sustainable food systems have become a sexy topic as of late, but what about sustainable clothing systems? Most Bangladeshi garment workers are young people in their early 20s, just like us. Why aren’t we concerned for the health, safety and livelihood of our Bangladeshi counterparts?

These are questions who don’t care or think to ask. Be it ignorance or apathy, it is clear that our mindless consumption affects others. How can we reconcile the overwhelming task of researching and weighing our personal ethics against the desire to fulfill our social image?

We can boycott brands, such as Walmart and JC Penny, that are associated with poor working conditions and environmental pollution — but that is still a quiet action. Refusing entirely to participate in the garment industry by buying used clothing is another good action. But to be honest, I don’t have a feel-good solution for you, my dear reader.

I just keep reflecting on the story of a 25-year-old woman who worked in the Rana Plaza factory. She was trapped amongst the rubble for three days, because her arm was pinned beneath a beam. Once rescue workers found her, they gave her a saw and instructed her to cut off her own arm.

Compare this to the James Franco movie 127 Hours, based on the story of a hiker whose arm was similarly pinned beneath a boulder. After five days, he sawed off his arm with a pocket knife and was rescued by fellow hikers.

The hiker’s story is celebrated as one of personal strength and perseverance, while the woman’s story is shoved aside in favor of global retail brands and retaining the status quo of crappy, cheap T-shirts.

If you just checked the tag of your T-shirt, email ELLEN PEARSON at erpearson@ucdavis.edu.


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