Ten Years after Rana Plaza

Last month marked the 10-year anniversary of the event that triggered my initial interest in the world of fashion. It was not the anniversary of a piece of clothing or a designer though – it was the 10-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse. On April 24, 2013, the eight-story factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,134 workers (most of whom were young women) and injuring another 2,500. Notably, less than half a year earlier, more than 100 workers had lost their lives in another tragic accident, trapped inside the burning Tazreen Fashions factory on the outskirts of Dhaka.

About five years ago, I went to factories in India and Bangladesh myself – as part of a work trip for my job back then. While we were likely shown some of the “best” factories as examples for Western visitors, seeing the people entering and working in the factories (many of whom at least seemed very young…) brought the Rana Plaza pictures back to my mind.

Relevancy Today

Now, a decade after the Rana Plaza collapse, there have been some improvements made in direct response to the catastrophe, particularly as it pertains to making factories safer (Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety). That said, the overall structural issues underpinning the global fashion supply chain have very much remained. Brands are continuing to hunt for the lowest prices to fulfill continuously increasing demand for new clothing (see our blog post from last month, where we showed global fiber production being forecasted to grow from just over 100M tons in 2020 to 150M tons in 2030). As a result, manufacturing practices have become even more fragmented as brands outsource more and more of their production to sprawling networks of suppliers in developing countries. With that, the number of factories has mushroomed, along with unauthorized subcontracting.

One prominent example receiving a lot of recent news coverage in the sphere of our global supply chain is that of Uyghur forced labor. Acknowledging that this topic is also politically charged, I am linking several sources throughout for further reading. In a nutshell, Chinese authorities have imprisoned thousands of people from the Uyghur ethnic minority and other turkic muslims in Xinjiang and coerced thousands of them into state or factory jobs to: “Break their lineage, break their roots (…) and break their origins” – Maisumujiang Maimuer, Chinese religious affairs official, 2017. An official UN report in 2022 summarized it as: “The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups (…) may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity (Reuters). I am linking two more really good articles on it here for background:

Exposed: China’s Operating Manuals for Mass Internment and Arrest by Algorithm by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

“Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots” China’s Crimes against Humanity Targeting Uyghurs and Other Turkic Muslims on Human Rights Watch 

How does this tie to the fashion supply chain?

Over the past ten years, the Chinese government has encouraged the vertical integration of China’s garment manufacturing sector closer to the cotton production centered in Xinjiang. As of 2018, the Chinese government has documented the employment of 450,000 new Turkic Muslim workers including impoverished household members, struggling relatives of prisoners and detainees, and political education camp detainees in the cotton and textiles industry (see this Wall Street Journal article from 2018 or this BBC article from 2020 on the matter). The official party language of the Chinese government on the matter is that these camps are “vocational training schools” and the factories are part of a massive, and voluntary, “poverty alleviation” scheme.

While the U.S. has very stringent laws to protect against the importation of goods made with forced labor (see the Tariff Act of 1930), it is generally difficult to enforce it. The main reason being that it is hard to get full transparency across all steps of the supply chain – and evidence is therefore generally very hard to verify. Also, as with most laws, there are loopholes.

Bloomberg has recently reported on the world’s largest fashion retailer, Shein, having found one such loophole. To quote: “Laboratory testing conducted for Bloomberg News on two occasions this year found that garments shipped to the US by Shein were made with cotton from China’s Xinjiang region. The results bring new urgency to concerns about the retailer known for its TikTok “haul” videos with young customers showing off their purchases.” The trick they use is simple: Shein is shipping directly to individual customers. Therefore, their shipments fall below the $800 value threshold that would trigger reporting requirements to US Customs and Border Protection. It does not stop with Shein, however, as still many western brands are tied to Chinese cotton (FYI: around 85 percent of Chinese cotton comes from Xinjiang…). And all that said, the problem of horrendous labor conditions remains a daily theme also beyond the Chinese Xinjiang region.

Is there a solution?

The question, therefore, is how to “resolve” it. Most large apparel brands have great teams working on ways to improve things – no doubt about it. In upcoming blogs, I aim to incorporate some innovators who work on developing new solutions to increasing supply chain transparency. Stay tuned on that.

As for the way we try to approach it at Svaki Dan: We stay close to our supply chain and work with partners we know. For instance, for our tees, we are using 100% Supima Cotton grown in the United States. We are working with a mill in North Carolina and a small manufacturing partner in Pennsylvania.

You can learn more about our materials and partners on our website. Please note that we are continuously working to get even better here – so stay tuned and join us on our journey. 

For now, I hope you have a great week ahead. Get good sleep, eat healthy, work out, enjoy the Spring weather (that you hopefully have wherever you are reading this), and, as always, elevate your every day!

Cheers,
Ben
Founder and CEO, Svaki Dan
ben@livesvaki.com

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