I am ready to make a change
Today marks the first year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. I am deeply saddened thinking about the tragic loss of life and even more saddened to think about how little has changed - not just in the past year but in the last 100 years.
I used to be a professor of Fashion Merchandising and taught the introductory course where I covered several topics including historical aspects of the fashion industry. One such major event that marked a turning point in U.S. garment manufacturing was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in New York City. It was one of the largest industrial disasters of the time, and remains so to this day, and resulted in the death of nearly 150 garment workers - most of them young, immigrant women. This tragic incident brought to the forefront the issues of workers rights of low wages, long hours, and poor working conditions.
But on a broader sociological level, it highlighted the ways in which those without cultural power and lower levels of social capital are silenced by those that do have such power and capital. In this case, it was young, immigrant women who had limited choices in making their livelihood but to find factory work that paid little and entailed such long, arduous hours of labor. What alternatives for a better life did they have? This was the best option available at the time for them to make a living to support themselves.
This tragic fire led to unionization and the collective bargaining of workers to push for fair pay and improved working conditions, including increased facility safety standards. Garment production was never the same again - at least not in the U.S. Which brings me to the question: How does this story differ from that of the Rana Plaza factory collapse?
In several ways, the stories are parallel in that people with limited choices go to work in garment production where conditions are harsh and work yields little monetarily compensation. Little regulation and oversight coupled with unsafe building structures leads to a tragic disaster resulting in the loss of many lives. What astonishes me is how these stories sound so similar and yet are divided by over a century of time!
The differences appear to be the fact that over 1,100 lives were lost at Rana Plaza, several times that of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and that Rana Plaza is in another country - one that we here in the U.S. probably think little about. Could you identify Bangladesh on a map? What language do they speak? What is the capital of the country? I honestly cannot tell you the answers to these questions. What does that say about us as a culture? And me? I am an educated woman with a doctoral degree and it is embarrassing to admit how little I know about a country that produces a large portion of the garments that I have purchased.
Fashion tells the story of a time and place, the values of a culture collectively. We use fashion to communicate who we are to the world, what we believe in. Our choices in adorning our bodies each day tell the story of who we are. As an academic of the social and psychological aspects of dress, appearance, the body, and identity, I am fascinated by all of this.
But in our current state, what story are we telling? What values are we expressing? That the lives of humans, particularly those that reside somewhere out of sight and mind, do not matter as much as the ability to buy a cheap item of clothing?
I am guilty of this. I am now “coming out of the closet” as someone who has willingly contributed to this unethical system, with little regard for anything beyond my own desire to enhance the aesthetic presentation of myself. I’ve been working to change this over the past few years, but it takes time to change old habits.
Maya Angelou has said, “when you know better, you do better.” Therefore I do not carry shame and guilt of my past transgressions but rather, I chose to move forward with the increased knowledge and awareness of the impact my purchasing choices have on the greater global community. I make these choices not out of shame and guilt but out of a desire to showcase a better value system. I want to express values that are ethical and contribute to a greater social good. Fashion has the power to do that.
The good news is that there is a multitude of added benefits of embracing a conscious consumption ethos. Purchasing less items but of better quality leads to a wardrobe that works so much better than the cheap piece here and there. I go to my closet each day with plenty of options and I no longer have the feeling of a closet full of clothes yet “nothing to wear.” Every item is a good one and beyond that, each item has more meaning. I feel more connected to my own sense of self and authentic style.
The environmental and ethical benefits of consciously consuming clothing coupled with the benefits to your closet and psyche all add up to something deeper…a closer connection to your best, higher self. And you can’t put a price on that!
I want to make a change, I want things to be different. I believe workers should be paid fairly and that they have the right to work in safe conditions. I believe that we need to be more careful with our beautiful planet. I believe that we should treat our clothing like valuable possessions instead of disposable, meaningless pieces of fabric.
When we chose to purchase and wear ethically made clothing, we express a personal and cultural value system based on respect. Respect for the environment, respect for the worker that made the garment, but most of all, we express respect we have for ourselves.
Let’s make a change today. By just making a single, conscious choice in what we purchase, we take the first step. We don’t have to overhaul our lives and closets overnight, we just have to make one different choice today, and then another tomorrow and before we know it, we’re on a new path - a new path to becoming who we really want to be.
Are you ready to make a change? I am!
For more, check out my Case for fewer - but better - clothes.