In 2013, the Rana Plaza, an eight-storey garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, leaving thousands killed and injured.
At the time of the tragedy, Ayesha Barenblat ran the Better Work program with the United Nations International Labor Organization, advocating for improved working conditions for garment workers with governments, unions, and companies.
“[It was] the biggest industrial disaster of our time…. So many women of colour lost their lives and continued to be injured post that disaster. I just wanted change to come sooner and faster,” says Barenblat.
The victims of the Rana Plaza collapse were making clothing for more than two dozen global fashion brands, drawing attention around the world to the tragic cost of fast fashion.
Fast fashion contributes to the climate crisis, environmental racism and the exploitation of garment workers. However, advocates, like Barenblat, aim to hold large corporations accountable and promote just working conditions for garment workers, and ultimately make consumers practice an ethical and sustainable lifestyle when it comes to purchasing their clothes.
The term “fast fashion” describes mass-produced clothing made by garment and textile workers not getting paid a livable wage. To generate the most profit, cheap and trendy clothing is made from low-quality, synthetic materials that are harmful to the environment at low costs to the industry.
The fashion industry contributes to about eight to 10 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, estimates Anika Kozlowski, an assistant professor of fashion design, ethics, and sustainability at Ryerson University who pursued an academic background in environmental science and fashion design.
As shoppers become more aware of the effects of fast fashion, sustainability has become a trending topic, with corporations taking part in this idea of greenwashing, Kozlowski says.
“It’s a marketing tactic that seeks to manipulate any green initiatives… to make people believe they’re buying something sustainable or buying into sustainability, when the companies are not sustainable.”
Many large companies often use the greenwashing tactic of turning hundreds of water bottles into a T-shirt, but fail to share how inefficient the practice of recycling water bottles into clothing is. She notes the disadvantages of the two main material fibres the industry relies on — polyester and cotton.
The global fashion industry — which contains multiple industries, including agriculture, design, textile, manufacturing and distribution — is very extractive, Kozlowski says.
“[It is] engaging in carbon that’s been sitting under the earth forever, but very polluting to extract and process, and then doesn’t degrade… doesn’t biodegrade into anything that is nourishing or healthy for the earth,” Kozlowski says.
“And then we have cotton, which is mostly grown in our industrialized agricultural system, which uses pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, which are also petroleum derivatives.”
It is estimated approximately 50 per cent of fast-fashion items that were never intended to be long lasting end up in landfills after one year, contributing to overproduction and excessive waste.
Integrating diversity of materials and regenerative practices that lessen the environmental impact, while revitalizing and restoring ecosystems would allow corporations within the fashion world to spread out their impacts and where they occur, maintaining more control over resources and their effects on climate change, Kozlowski says.
Environmental racism — producing cheap and trendy clothing at the expense of exploiting developing nations — continues to be a large issue within the industry.
“By the industry preying in these communities, for cheap labor and cheap resources, they’re really hastening the climate crisis’ impact on the same communities that are also keeping them profitable, and bringing their product to life,” Barenblat says.
Environmental racism runs through the fashion supply chain, from production to end of life, impacting communities of colour at every step, Barenblat says.
“Most of our clothes end up in landfills in [places like] Ghana, and disrupt their way of life and local markets, and have them deal with our fashion trash for the most part.”
Working to reform these practices, Barenblat realized so many of these conversations about change were taking place behind closed doors. She wanted to make this movement accessible to the everyday consumer, catalyzing progress.
In 2016, she founded Remake, a non-profit organization and community of fashion lovers seeking to make change in the fashion industry through education, advocacy and transparency.
“I founded Remake to really disrupt the status quo to make this industry more just and accountable,” Barenblat says.
Through free educational resources, brand ratings and advocacy campaigns, Remake focuses its efforts on garment workers and the climate crisis, encouraging a shift toward a sustainable and ethical lifestyle.
“The work is really centred towards the fashion industry addressing the climate crisis, and to be supporting the some 70 million, mostly women of colour, who work in the fashion supply chain — and today are on the frontlines of the climate crisis,” she says.
Remake has successfully started multiple initiatives that mobilize different communities to create positive policy reform and change in the fashion industry. The non-profit organization campaigned to pass SB62, the Garment Worker Protection Act, in California, holding brands liable for the fair and legal payment of their garment workers. Their PayUp Fashion campaign helped raise $22 billion when global fashion brands refused to pay garment workers an estimated $40 billion worth of finished goods during the beginning of the pandemic.
But both Barenblat and Kozlowski recognize the stigma associated with sustainable fashion.
“There’s a lot of shaming that people can’t buy into sustainability. It’s not something you buy into. It’s a culture. It’s a change. It’s behaviour,” says Kozlowski.
Moving Forward: Sustainable Business
As businesses, the fashion industry must reform the entire supply chain to be regenerative and ethical, and environmentally and socially conscious to make actual long-term progress in the climate crisis, Kozlowski says.
“We need the policies. We need infrastructure, the innovation, the technology and the investment that we’re designing — not just the circulatory system, but products that work in tandem with that system. So we can do what we can right now to help increase longevity. But we really need to start designing with that intention.”
Supporting small, local businesses practicing sustainable and regenerative production is one way shoppers can have an impact.
Lourdes Still, owner of Masagana Flower Farm in southeastern Manitoba, is doing what she can, transforming lawns into garden beds, selling locally grown flowers and small batches of naturally dyed textiles.
“I want to advocate [an] eco-conscious lifestyle where people can really be inspired to reimagine their own green spaces,” she says.
Small businesses don’t always have enough resources to be 100 per cent sustainable, Still says, but as a business owner, she values transparency from production to end of life, providing goods that will last. She also understands ethically made products are not always financially accessible to everyone, and not everyone is ready to make that change in their lives.
“I want to be available to those people who are ready to make the change in their life. If they’re looking for naturally dyed textile goods [and] mindfully made stuff… I am there to support their changes.”
Remake’s Barenblat believes fashion can be a force for good. She says if consumers increase the longevity of their clothing and become more conscious about where they put their money, then slowing the pace of production and lifting garment workers out of poverty will be possible — ensuring disasters like Rana Plaza will never happen again.
As someone from Pakistan who now lives in the U.S., Barenblat says she recognizes her privilege and sees it as a responsibility to be an ally.
“Because the garment makers who are fierce, resilient, incredible women in my part of the world, their fight goes on. For me to be an ally to her work and to really lift her up, it really helps connect my past and my present. That’s the part of it I love, remaking these connections from maker back to the everyday shopper.”
Action plan to reduce fast fashion
The climate crisis is an overwhelming issue to face as an individual. However, there are many ways to act now. Simply educating oneself or engaging in media that centralizes this issue can spread awareness.
- Take care of what you have and increase longevity
- Only buy when necessary
- empower and buy from local, sustainable, and ethical businesses
- buy second hand
- buy something that will really last
- rent clothes
- If you no longer want an item, take responsibility and find a new home for it, not contributing to the waste model. Trade clothing with your friends!
- Sign petitions that will support garment workers and environmental protection
- Write to government officials to make policy change
- Understand no one is perfectly sustainable
- Amplify and advocate for diversity and inclusion in these conversations changes
- Spread awareness on social media, to friends and family
- Integrate systems thinking — change behaviours through addressing root causes and change our relationships with these systems
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