O.M-R. – It’s been over two years since the collapse of the Rana Plaza textile complex in Bangladesh where more than one thousand people died. The dreadful anniversary did not go unnoticed in the annual OECD Forum held in Paris in early June. While the Forum’s official mantra was “invest, invest, invest” as a remedy to the global economic crisis, the tragic accident served as a reminder and a warning of the fateful consequences of the currently prevailing production system. Participants spoke about ensuring quality investment and, more to the point, about ethical and sustainable investment to ensure production processes and supply chains that are socially responsible and respectful with the environment. It was also emphasized that a change of the production model requires a demonstration of political will by the States (which, after all, regulate the conditions for investment), a different business vision among companies, and greater coordination between the two. Consumers also have a role in this change. This was expressed particularly forcefully by Bas van Abel, founder of the Dutch company Fairphone, which sells mobile phones made with conflict-free minerals, designed to last, and assembled in safe and fair work conditions. Van Abel called the ordinary citizen to consume in an informed and conscious way. While recognizing this requires time and dedication, he claimed the decision to buy one product over another (or not buy) is a powerful tool to reorient supply and thus the way things are produced. Are consumers willing to change their preferences?
To mark the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster last 24 April, Fashion Revolution, a coalition of designers, academics, writers, business leaders and parliamentarians, held a Fashion Revolution Day, which included a series of actions. Among the ones that received most media attention was the placing of a vending machine selling white shirts for two euros on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. On the machine screen, prospective buyers were shown the people – mainly women and children – who manufacture the T-shirts, their working conditions, and the meagre wages they receive. Next, the screen invited buyers to donate the two euros to work towards the improvement of these conditions. Most buyers chose to donate. This, according to the organizers, shows that when people are informed, they care about the implications of what they consume. It should be mentioned here that the textile industry not only carries the stigma of labour exploitation, but it is also the second largest polluter after the oil industry. The aim of campaigns such as Fashion Revolution is to inform and increase awareness, especially among young people, of what is behind, in this case, the clothing brands we buy, and indirectly promote slow fashion as an alternative to fast mass fashion or mcfashion. The lower the price of a garment, the more likely it was produced in unfair conditions. Slow fashion offers consumers buying less clothes, but of higher quality and responsibly manufactured. One of the challenges of the slow movement, both in the field of fashion and others, are the uncompetitive prices of their products (for example, the simplest T-shirt sold by Zady, one of the pioneers in slow fashion, costs 36 dollars). Can everyone afford less for more money?
It is generally workers with poorer pay and working conditions in the North who are forced to consume goods at low prices produced by workers in much worse conditions in the South. Some participants at the OECD Forum, such as Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign, which brings together trade unions and NGOs, pointed out that not only is it not enough, but it is not desirable to have responsible brands and others that are not. You cannot give the option to the consumer to buy responsibly or not: all brands and products should meet the same ethical-social and environmental criteria. In that sense, green and fair trade brands currently risk becoming the privilege of those population segments that can afford paying a little more; hereby creating a divide between responsible consumers and others who are not (or cannot be). However, the fact is that even when you can spend only a little you still have the option to buy three T-shirts for five dollars each or one for fifteen dollars of higher quality that will probably last the same (or more) than the other three T-shirts together. Changing consumption patterns involves a change in our mentality. Unlike the worker who cannot stop working without risking her livelihood, “hyper-capitalism has not yet invented the material structure to chain the consumer to consumer society,” writes French political scientist Paul Ariès, author of the manifesto for general consumption strike. To Ariès, it is the artificial pleasure yielded by the act of buying which prevents us from stopping doing it, but there is not a material bond as the one that fetters us to work: we do not risk our survival by consuming less. Therefore, staying with the example of fashion, it is likely that as slow fashion imposes itself in the collective imagination, no one will be frowned upon for having fewer clothes and using them repeatedly; actually it will look bad to wear new clothes too often.
At the same time, as already noted, it should be a priority for States to support and promote companies that produce responsible and sustainable goods and services so that they are in a position to offer competitive prices within the reach of a majority of buyers. It is also a priority to regulate and unify ethical and environmental responsibility criteria to prevent that their design and application becomes the business of consulting firms, resulting in a lack of transparency in the ways green and fair-trade labels and awards are granted. It is no doubt positive that the OECD talks of ‘quality investment’, bringing related questions to the table. It means that, little by little, this set of ideas will permeate the policies of the more developed countries, and that more steps will be taken in this regard institutionally. Yet the road is long. Barely two weeks ago were the more than two million dollars still missing to reach the 30 million-compensation for the victims of the Rana Plaza finally collected thanks to a large anonymous donation. The fact that it took more than two years to bring together the final amount –frankly laughable in proportion to the profits of the multinationals involved– does not induce excessive optimism. As consumers, in our little and more or less privileged sphere, we still have the power to decide daily what we buy and what not even though, so far, it depends very much on us to find out what goods and services are less harmful to our fellow human beings and the planet.