Aldona Bird, Columns/Opinion

Cheap clothes may have underlying ethical dilemmas

Who made your clothes? Do you know? Do you think about it?

Well, I do … until I see a really cute summer dress for only $15. If it has a feature I really love (perfect fit, especially pretty fabric), I waive my morals.

I’m identifying this shopping habit as a problem and am consciously trying to change; Not just for myself, but also for our society, and more importantly, for the people who make the impossibly cheap apparel we are now used to.

I picked this topic for today because it is Fashion Revolution week. This global movement marks the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, in 2013. This was not the first factory disaster in Bangladesh, although it was the deadliest — 1,134 people were killed and about 2,500 injured.

The factory building was constructed on a filled-in pond, making it structurally unstable. An additional three floors were added above the original permit (making it a total of five stories high).

It was converted from commercial use to industrial use when clothing factories were added above apartments and first floor shops. This meant additional heavy equipment and thousands of workers.

Not surprisingly (although horrifyingly) the building owners ignored alerts of cracks in the building — evidence of its unsafeness. They instructed workers to continue coming to work and even threatened wage loss to those who didn’t.

Some time after the cracks were found and ignored, the building collapsed during a morning rush.

I was surprised that no one knew what companies sourced from these factories — not even the companies themselves. Inspectors had to look through the rubble for labels and tags and interview workers to get some idea.

As I read about this and other tragedies in the fashion industry, I learned that this is not at all uncommon. Workers have tried to report illegal conditions and actions by factory owners and managers, but since they don’t know what brands the factory produces for they cannot alert anyone.
After the Rana Plaza collapse, Human Rights Watch formed a coalition with international labor unions and labor rights groups to campaign for a pledge of basic transparency.
Major clothing producers Adidas, H&M Group, C&A, Hanesbrands, Cotton On Group, G-Star RAW, Levi’s, Lindex, Esprit, Nike and Patagonia all already practiced some levels of transparency, but they took the pledge.

This is the request of those who use #whomademyclothes on social media: Simple transparency, ethics and sustainability in clothing production. It is horrifying that we need to demand this and that the mainstream companies who supply information can be listed in a couple paragraphs of my column (there are a few others that participate in other agreements, but the list is still pretty short).
In addition to using the official hashtag on social media, we can show our support for the movement by taking a stroll through downtown Morgantown this evening between 5 and  7 p.m. to view five Fashion Revolution-themed window displays designed by a WVU visual merchandising class.
You and I can show our support for basic transparency by asking manufacturers who made the clothing they want to sell to us, by shopping fair trade brands, and by consciously and ethically choosing which big brands we buy from; which probably means no more cheap sundresses for me.