It’s 8 a.m. on a densely crowded Bangladesh street.
Thousands of workers are refusing to enter their place of work, an eight-story factory housing five textile businesses. Alarming cracks have appeared in the walls, and people fear for their safety.
The owner, ignoring the fears of the workers, hires men with sticks to beat the crowd and force them into the building.
The laborers, mainly female, are told that if they do not work today they will not be paid for the whole month. How will they feed their children?
Reluctantly, the crowd gives up their protest and goes to work. Forty-five minutes later, the building disintegrates with thousands of workers trapped inside.
This is the tragic story behind the collapse of the Rana Plaza. On April 24, 2013, hundreds of textile workers died and more than 2,500 were injured. Some 1,137 were confirmed dead.
Nearly one third of those who had tried in vain to voice their rights that day, to secure something that we take for granted – the right to a safe working environment – died.
The name Rana Plaza has gone down in history as the deadliest disaster, to date, of the garment industry worldwide.
Many of us watched the news that day, saddened at the lives lost, angry at the Western brands that contracted the making of our clothes to business owners who cut corners and made their workers endure 100-hour weeks. Surely the fashion industry must have known.
Andy Showell-Rogers, who attends Headington Baptist Church in Oxford in the United Kingdom, was one of those who sat, shocked and perplexed, watching the tragedy unfold on TV.
But for him, the story didn’t stop there. It prompted a remarkable course of action that has brought fairness and security to the lives of many textile workers in developing countries.
“On TV we can see so much suffering, we can feel ‘what can I do?'” Showell-Rogers said. “This leads to inaction because one person can’t solve everything. But when I saw the collapse of Rana Plaza, I felt enough was enough. This can’t carry on.”
That day, he and two friends made a decision to find out how easy it would be to only wear clothes that reflected their values.
So Showell-Rogers liberated his wardrobe of its contents, including underwear and socks, and set out on a mission to only buy and wear ethically sourced products.
“We didn’t know how difficult it would be,” Showell-Rogers said. “We wondered if it would even be possible to find one complete outfit.”
They charted their clothing challenge on a blog, “Who Made My Wardrobe,” reviewing products and promoting brands that are transparent.
“We wanted fairness to be part of their DNA,” Showell-Rogers said. “We wanted to be confident that the people making the decisions in these businesses know that the people making their clothes are being treated fairly. But it was really difficult to find many companies like this.”
Not only was it hard to find ethically produced clothes, but also the items they did find were often expensive.
“We found a lot of high-end fashion stuff. We were willing to pay a bit more but there just wasn’t much to find so we ended up with a very limited wardrobe.”
This frustration led to the realization that there was a gap in the market for affordable, ethically sourced clothes that people would want to wear. So the guys set out to change people’s expectations.
Could they sell T-shirts or shirts that looked good, that were quality products, made by skilled tailors in developing countries who were paid a fair price for their work, tailors they had met and knew the names of?
A crowd-funding campaign enabled Showell-Rogers to embark on making this dream a reality. Several overseas trips later, Visible Clothing was launched.
The company provides clothing manufactured in factories with safe working conditions and fair wages.
They also seek to bring the buyer much closer to the maker by sharing their tailors’ life stories on their website.
Aside from seeking out fairly made clothes, it’s possible to effect change using the clothes we already have.
There’s a growing community of people who are determined to take on the big brands, to challenge them about their ethics and business practices.
On April 24, 2015, a Fashion Revolution day will commemorate the lives and livelihoods lost in the Rana Plaza disaster by encouraging people to ask the big high-street names – who made my clothes?
Joining in the action is fairly simple: Take a selfie showing the label on your clothes, tag the brand and ask #whomademyclothes?
Showell-Rogers said changing, or at the very least challenging, big business is essential.
“We can give money to charity in one hand and then take it back again by causing suffering in another way,” he said. “And clothes are such a part of our identity; it can be challenging to change in this way.”
But change we must, before Rana Plaza is forgotten and another building collapse takes the title of “biggest textile industry disaster in the world.”
Fiona Spence is a freelance writer and journalist in the United Kingdom. A longer version of this news article first appeared in The Baptist Times of Great Britain – the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @fionas125.