It can be easy to dismiss events elsewhere in the world as not our problem, particularly when it’s a non-western country where the people don’t dress like us or live like us. But it is less easy to ignore when our own shopping habits could be part of the cause.
Last week in Bangladesh, a building full of clothes manufacturers collapsed. At least 380 people were killed. Hundreds more are still missing. There were 3,000 people working in the eight storey building at the time of the collapse.
Three storeys had been illegally added and the building owner is reported to have forced people to enter the building to work despite concerns from workers about cracks that had appeared in the walls. He has since been arrested.
The garment industry in Bangladesh is vast. Check the labels of the clothes you’re wearing. There’s a good chance something you’ve got on was made in Bangladesh. Over the years, much has been made of the human cost of cheap clothes. Issues like low pay, poor working conditions and working age have all made headlines.
The Dhaka tragedy already has a bigger death toll than nearly all terror attacks. If the building had collapsed as a result of terrorist activity, it would have the fifth highest death toll in history. More people were killed in the building collapse than in the Lockerbie bombings (270), the Beslan school siege (334), the Madrid train bombings (191) or the 2002 Bali bombings (202).
While it’s not the result of the actions of a homicidal maniac bent on death and destruction, the building collapse is a symptom of our buying habits. The west demands £3 t-shirts. Poorer countries meet the demands by flouting the kind of standards and working conditions we would expect for employees in our own country.
The suppliers based in the building have already been linked with Primark, Matalan and Mango. It’s all too easy for clothing retailers to distance themselves from the conditions that the people who make their clothes work in. The actual garment workers can be two, three or even more steps removed from the brand. But affordable fashion doesn’t have to come at such a high price. H&M, for example has been lobbying the Bangladeshi government for a living wage for garment workers.
We can make a difference by taking care how we spend our money. Take a few minutes to check whether your clothes retailer of choice has an ethical policy. We have more power than we realise.