Tomorrow marks the six-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh. A stark reminder of the real human cost of the current fashion industry, and an important time to consider what the future of fashion is shaping up to be.
Rana Plaza housed five garment factories that made clothes for big global brands. The tragedy cost the lives of 1,138 people with another 2,500 injured, mostly young women. It was the fourth largest industrial disaster in history.
This catalysed a global movement and the launch of Fashion Revolution Week, taking place now in London, and the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes? which trended on social media at the time and has done annually since.
Despite consumer demands for greater transparency on the working conditions of the people that make our clothes, it remains hard to find concrete answers on the high street, particularly when many brands are sourcing clothes from offshore factories without full knowledge of their supply chains.
The issue of exploitation in fashion also hits closer to home. Parliament published an inquiry into the UK fashion industry and found worrying evidence regarding labour practices in factories supplying UK fast fashion and e-retailers, particularly in Leicester. At their first hearing, they were told that “the going rate for a garment worker in lots of places in Leicester is £3.50, £4 an hour” (well below the minimum wage), and there were “significant concerns” about working conditions in some factories.
In addition to the human cost, the current fashion industry has a major environmental cost. It is now the third most polluting sector on the planet and energy intensive, contributing to three per cent of global production of C02 emissions.
While the bigger picture is indeed bleak, there is a growing number of inspiring consumer trends that give me hope on a daily basis.
From buying clothes made in the UK, to renting clothes, choosing vintage, and buying from the growing number of ethical and sustainable brands that have come to the market, individuals are making sustainable choices. Last month, Rent the Runway, an online platform where people rent rather than buy their clothes, was valued at £1bn, and there are numerous examples of other industry disrupting ideas popping up in London.
This move away from the throwaway fast-fashion industry is reflected by the increase in brands advertising the durability of their products and offering free repairs. UK brands are even starting to use waste products as an input into their accessories and garments they make, from handbags made of fire-hose to kids raincoats made from discarded tents, creating a more “circular” fashion industry.
London is a key player in this revolution. We’ve got the money, the fashion brands and reputation, the tech and a growing political interest in really making things happen. Even London Fashion Week is leading the way by banning fur from its runway shows – the first in the world to do so.
Meanwhile, the UK government is mauling over the new report, Fixing Fashion, published by the Environmental Audit Committee. It sets world leading policy recommendations to ensure fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste that they create and to improve human rights in the sector.
All of these factors have contributed to my decision as a Kiwi entrepreneur to launch my ethical tech business CoGo here from New Zealand.
Even if it’s not as fast as the industry that they’re aiming to disrupt, it’s encouraging to see government trying to take action, while consumers and brands are changing their attitudes. This is good for people, the planet and it looks set to be good for business too.