Would Investing More in Your Wardrobe Help Prevent Another Garment-Factory Tragedy?

Would you stop buying cheap clothes if you knew people died making them?

Rescue workers and volunteers search by hand for victims amongst the debris of the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Friday, April 26, 2013. The day after a Bangladesh building collapsed, killing more than 290 people, disagreement emerged over whether the owner obtained appropriate construction permits, adding to concerns over worker safety in the country's garment industry. Photographer: Jeff Holt/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Image courtesy of Getty.

It's been exactly one year since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dakha, Bangladesh, that killed over 1,100 people and injured 2,500 more. And while the response to the disaster has come mostly from government bodies, retailers, and workers'-rights groups, we're wondering why consumers aren't more concerned about purchasing clothes from the brands that manufacture there.

The Rana Plaza collapse is the fashion industry's biggest tragedy since the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911, which claimed 146 lives and spurred not only outrage but some of the most dramatic workplace-safety reforms the industry has ever seen. Rana Plaza has given us some improvements, too, but none of them have been nearly as comprehensive as its predecessor.

While companies like Primark, the British fast-fashion chain that produces some of its wares in Bangladesh, have pledged to compensate victims and their families, plenty of shoppers still flock to buy its low-priced clothes (a pair of jeans can go for as little as £15, or about $25). In fact, Primark's business is so good it plans to expand to the United States, starting with Boston, in 2015.

The other brands that manufacture clothing in Bangladesh don't show any sign of slowing down—or working to improve worker conditions, either. H&M posted a 13 percent sales increase last month and recently announced yet another designer collaboration, this time with Alexander Wang. Zara is about to open flagship stores in Hong Kong, Madrid, Zurich, and Miami, and Joe Fresh is planning an ambitious international expansion from the U.S. and Canada to 24 other countries.

All of which will increase the global demand for less-expensive clothing, which means more strain on poorly built factories—and more unsafe conditions for the workers inside.

This is not to say that these brands, none of which manufacture exclusively in Bangladesh, haven't been working to correct the problems that led to the Rana Plaza tragedy. In fact, there are two major groups leading this charge: the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety, composed mainly of European clothiers like H&M and Mango; and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which has only North American brands, like Gap and Target, on its roster.

The organizations have had their fair share of disagreements, the central one being that they can't agree on a set of safety standards or a way to implement them. But there has been some progress on the ground. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association is working with both groups, as well as hiring its own engineers and building inspectors, who have found "problems in every factory" they've been to and have closed some buildings outright.

But would any of this be necessary if buyers at the end of the supply chain were willing to pay a little more for better-quality clothing made under safer working conditions? Ismail Ferdous, a photographer who witnessed the disaster, seems to think not.

"I see the brand names all the time," Ferdous says in a recent video for the New York Times. "The tags remind me of the tags I've seen at the Rana Plaza collapse."

"People don't want to pay more," he adds, implying that if consumers aren't willing to spend, there's no way the people who make the clothes can invest in workplace safety or better pay for workers.

Fortunately, there's no shortage of brands that produce clothing ethically. Even big operations like Levi's and Bottega Veneta have made impressive ethical and sustainable measures, and smaller shops like Cadet—a menswear brand based in Brooklyn—take on the challenge of manufacturing in the United States to control their environmental impact.

The international community can spend all the money it wants on updating old and crumbling factories, and workers'-rights organizations can pass one safety standard after another, but until consumers (that's, ahem, you) care about the real cost of buying absurdly low-priced clothes, manufacturers are going to keep finding ways to cut their their overhead—which might result in more of these workers making up the difference with their lives.

—Details associate online style editor Justin Fenner

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