24 Apr 2020
Setting the standard for a Fashion Revolution
This week marks the seventh anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1,138 people - most of them young women - and injured many more. The first garment factory to become certified under the Fairtrade Textile Standard, among others, are showing that fashion can be both profitable and sustainable.
Garment workers have one of the toughest jobs in the world. In Bangladesh and India, women work up to 60 hours a week and earn as little as 30 cents a hour. According to Fashion Revolution, more than 90 percent of workers in the global fashion industry have no way of changing their wages or conditions. Their plight has been made even worse by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than one million garment workers being laid off in Bangladesh alone.
It’s dangerous too - especially for the women who make up eight out of every 10 garment workers globally. This week marks the seventh anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed 1,138 people - most of them young women - and injured many more.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Purecotz Eco Lifestyles in Umargam, North India, which earlier this year became the first sewing factory to be certified under the Fairtrade textile standard, is proof that fashion can be both profitable and sustainable.
“For a business to be sustainable it needs to rest on three solid pillars - economic, social and environmental sustainability,” says Amit Narke, Purecotz Founder and Managing Director. “It’s obvious that in the long term it has to be fair - that is, socially sustainable; it has to be organic - that is, environmentally sustainable; and it needs to make good business sense, so it needs to be economically sustainable.”
“We wanted to do things differently but we weren’t sure how to do them,” says Amit. “Then Fairtrade came in with a professional, official system and we were assured it’s the right way. Fairtrade has shown us how to start implementing living wages, and we are already taking steps towards that.”
The Fairtrade Textile Standard is the first approach of its kind in the world to cover people working throughout the supply chain from seed cotton to finished textile products - meaning everyone benefits. Seamstress Sharmilaben Kamli, who has worked at Purecotz for 13 years, sees the difference it has made. “My life has completely changed,” she says. “I earn more than the basic wage, and men and women earn the same here. I have never had the feeling that I would be thrown out or sacked. We have a works committee so if we have problems we don’t have to confront the management directly. The committee works with the management to solve them together.”
At the Omax Cotspin cotton mill in Rajsitapur - where the seed cotton is turned into yarn destined for the Purecotz factory - a group of women are taking part in a training session organized by Fairtrade. “When we look at a finished garment I don’t think we ever think twice about what really goes behind this garment, how many hands have actually worked on it,” says trainer Sethulakshmy Chakkenchath. “The textile industry is the second biggest largest employer in India after agriculture. Most of them are women, and they face difficulties including discrimination, sexual harassment, unequal pay, or not being able to voice their opinion when they have a problem.”
“We are helping each factory, each mill, to build a better working environment. After the training, there are women who come back and say ‘we are much more confident now, we are able to communicate better, if there is some problem we are the first ones to come forward and voice our grievance.’ We’re building confidence and self-esteem in the workers. Once that happens, the whole working environment changes. There are real wonders that can happen in factories - I have seen places where the culture has completely changed.”
But can that change of culture work its way through to western consumers used to buying fast, cheap, disposable fashion? Rabea Schafrick, Deputy Head of Sustainability at Brands Fashion in Germany believes so. “Our company is working to Fairtrade standards, we are trying to become a pioneer of fairer fashion. What we like about Fairtrade is that it’s immediately obvious to the consumer that what they are buying has been produced fairly. In this way, we are strengthening workers' rights and thus ensuring that living wages are paid in the long term. Together with our suppliers and customers, we want to continue on this path to show that a sustainable textile industry is possible.”