Relatives mourn as they look for a garment worker, who is missing after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, outside Dhaka May 2, 2013.
Reuters/Khurshed Rinku
Relatives mourn as they look for a garment worker, who is missing after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building.

I was 9 years old when the political first became personal. Swayed by stories of kids not much older than me stitching together soccer balls and sneakers, my sister, mom, and I made a pact to never wear Nike. In a sea of Air Jordans, I held my own in uncool shoes* against neoliberal arguments I could tell were bullshit years before I hit puberty.

Sixteen years later, I found myself sneaking stories about sustainable fashion into Grist. Why clothing? Why this issue, so often associated with vanity, and not another, more worthy topic? What about the local food movement? Or the multifaceted battles over renewable and dirty energy? The world is burning, and you want to write about jeans? Really?

Clothing is a giant, wasteful industry in need of serious reform. Just growing enough cotton for a T-shirt swallows up anywhere from 700 to 2,000 gallons of water. Then there’s the other end of that shirt’s life cycle: Americans threw out 11.1 million tons of textiles in 2010.

There’s good news, too. An army of millennials are fighting to shake up, reinvent, and reinvigorate the way we do fashion. Major brands are already gearing up to go green (or greenwash like mad). And there’s a growing backlash to business-as-usual. “We’re having conversations about clothing that people were having about food 15 years ago,” Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed, a book on the social and environmental costs of fashion, tells NPR.

That’s all important, but it wasn’t until I tried to write about the recent collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Bangladesh that I made the connection as to why this stuff matters so much to me. By last count, more than 1,000 people have died in Rana Plaza, making it the most deadly accident the garment industry has ever seen.

One-thousand. For comparison, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which spurred safety and labor laws across the U.S., killed 146. Last November, 117 people died in the Tazreen Factory fire in Bangladesh. And while they were still pulling bodies out of Rana Plaza’s rubble, another Bangladesh factory went up in flames on Thursday, killing eight.

It’s easy to disconnect yourself from tragedies on the other side of the world. But the untold stories behind those body counts aren’t pretty. “Deaths in modern garment factories tend to be different from plane crashes or many other catastrophic traumas in the slow-motion extravagance of their pain,” writes Sarah Stillman in The New Yorker. “For minutes, or even hours, workers’ lungs fill up with smoke. For days, even a week, workers struggle to survive under rubble until someone digs them out.”

Former sweatshop worker and human rights advocate Kalpona Akter tells Stillman the story of a mother of one of the victims of the Tazreen Factory fire. Her 24-year-old son had time to call her during the fire, to describe all the ways he was trying to escape. He had time to tell her that his lungs were filling with smoke, and that he was tying a shirt around his waist so she could identify his body. He had time to apologize for dying.

Didar Hossain was working in a garment factory across from Rana Plaza when the neighboring building collapsed, he tells BBC World Service. Pushing past a security guard, he ran in to help. Hossain carried out headless bodies and rescued dozens of people. He found a girl trapped in the rubble. The only way to get her out was through amputating her hand. The doctor was too frightened to go inside and handed him the knife. “She watched while I amputated her hand. She was screaming and I was screaming too, and I cried when I saw her crying,” he says. “I felt really bad, but there was no other way.”

In the face of tragedies like this, it’s hard to figure out who to blame. Companies are not legally obligated to reveal their supply chain to the public. Labor groups literally dig through the rubble to find physical evidence tying brands to disasters. And even when damning evidence surfaces, convoluted supply chains and third-party contracts make it easy for companies to deny accountability. In the case of the Tazreen Factory fire, Walmart denied knowing that its goods were being made there, even when photos and documents surfaced showing five of the factory’s 14 production lines were dedicated to Walmart products.

But while we lack clear connections between brands and tragedies, the simple fact that corporations put pressure on factories to produce more and more, for less and less, speaks for itself. In 2002, Bangladesh exported $5 billion worth of products. In the last 10 months alone, that number was $17.31 billion.

Bangladesh’ cheap labor and lax regulations make it an appealing destination for Big Fabric. “There is no other reason why a company would be doing business there,” Cline tells NPR. The cost of labor is going up in China, causing corporations to seek out a cheaper market. The average wage for a garment worker in China is $200 a month, Cline says. In Bangladesh, it’s $37. In Bangladesh, a labor leader was tortured and killed for trying to change that.

After the Tazreen Factory fire in November, clothing brands rejected union proposals for independent inspections, calling them too costly, preferring their own auditing and monitoring systems. (By contrast, the Walt Disney Company decided to pull production out of the country altogether.) “Companies that are downplaying involvement in Bangladesh’s factory safety problems may be counting on the short memories of Western consumers,” Kay Johnson wrote for the Associated Press.

And so here’s where you and I come into the picture. The next time you spot a sweet deal at your favorite cheap clothing store, read the tag and consider how and why it’s so cheap. The human cost of our cheap clothing is emblematic of our larger struggles. Much like with food, many folks want to make better choices when it comes to clothing, but the current systems are stacked against them. Our culture encourages a disconnect from the things that we consume and what it takes to get it to us. Most of us fail to see how our purchases collectively shape the world we live in. Let’s lace up our bad shoes and start making those connections.

*Yes, they were likely sweatshop-made, too. But this was a symbolic battle, not a perfect one.