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Today is a weird day in fashion. On one hand, Target has announced the brand's latest collaboration (this one with adored designer Phillip Lim) and the industry is buzzing with excitement for the impending fast fashion capsule.
On the other hand, Reuters reports that eight people were killed yesterday in clothing factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This is a separate accident from the building collapse at Rana Plaza two weeks ago, which has claimed more than 900 lives, at last count. The Rana Plaza collapse is the deadliest tragedy in the history of the garment industry and it has garnered an unprecedented amount of attention from both the fashion industry and the public.
These back-to-back tragedies are taking more than a little of the shine off Target's Phillip Lim capsule announcement. Target works with many factories in Bangladesh, and it's frankly surprising that Target decided to time the announcement for this week without addressing the issue of where and how the clothing would be made. If there is ever going to be a come-to-Jesus moment for fast fashion, it seems like today could be the day.
Labor issues in fashion are extremely complicated. Wildly complicated. Impossibly complicated. The apparel production system is riddled with so many contracts and sub-contracts that, in many cases, not even the brands producing the clothes know where and under what conditions the clothing is made.
Benetton, one of the labels found amid the rubble of the Rana Plaza factories, admitted that its supply chain was so complex that the company didn't know its clothes were being produced there.
"Big retailers and brands (not just those caught producing in Rana Plaza) have systematically distanced themselves from the manufacture of their product. It is part of their business model," writes the Guardian's Lucy Siegel. The typical brand stance is that since they don't own the factories, they can't be held responsible for what happens there.
There is a chance for these back-to-back tragedies in Bangladesh to change that.
"This story is impossible to ignore and I think it makes consumers question everything that they've started to believe about fashion brands. I think we all started to believe that they had gotten better, and if you really started to look behind the scenes, they were doing the right thing. This is a wake up call that they're not doing the right thing, they're doing the bare minimum," Elizabeth Cline, author of the book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, told Racked.
This is especially true for fast fashion brands, such as Joe Fresh, Mango, and H&M who work with factories in Bangladesh. "H&M has an environmentally friendly collection, but why can't I walk into an H&M and buy a product that has a label on it that says it's either made in a living-wage factory or some sort of equivalent to the organic and fair trade standards that are in food?" asks Cline. "That's what we need to see in fashion."
We asked fashion designer Stella McCartney—whose staunch stance against the use of animal products and chemical-based materials like PVC has made her a leader in ethical fashion—what she thinks the factory collapse means for fashion. "I think it's very important to be a conscious consumer," she told us. "The only way people really respond in business is when they see it in the consumer. You guys have the power."
And there are indications that today's fashion consumer is ready to make choices in favor of ethically made clothing, even if it means paying more. According to a University of Michigan study, a quarter of consumers say that they would be willing to pay between 20% and 50% more for an item of clothing that is ethically made versus an identical product that does not guarantee the conditions it was made under.
So here's a thought: What if Target takes this opportunity to produce the Phillip Lim collaboration in living wage or fair trade factories? Not only would it address concerns of ethics and corporate responsibility, it would be a truly innovative move with the potential to breath new life into the flagging high-low collab model.
We reached out to Target and asked them whether they would be willing to produce the collaboration in living-wage or fair-trade factories, or if there was otherwise some way for customers to be assured that come September 15, when the collaboration launches, they will be buying ethically produced garments.
The company responded with sympathy for the Bangladesh community, but said their labor standards go only as far as local laws—which are famously lax. Their response also implied that though they actively avoid use of subcontracted factories, they can't guarantee it.
Here is their complete response:
We send our deepest sympathy to the Bangladesh community and the victims of these recent heartbreaking events.
As stated in our Standards of Vendor Engagement, Target will not knowingly work with any company that does not comply with our ethical standards and our business partners must provide safe and healthy workplaces that comply with local laws.
Target has a strong focus on Bangladesh factories and safety. We have an expanded auditing process specifically for Bangladesh. Target auditors spend additional time in our Bangladesh factories examining safety conditions. In Bangladesh, we use our own internal unannounced audit process and our own auditor. The auditor has undergone robust training in our standards and audit processes and is subject to periodic review.
In addition, we've reduced the number of factories we work with in Bangladesh by nearly 50 percent over the past several years and consolidated our business with factories that have committed to better safety standards. This consolidated factory base also enables us to better and more closely monitor the factories we use.
Target actively works to reduce the risk of unauthorized subcontracting. Our policy is that any subcontracting by factories or vendors must be communicated to Target to give us oversight of the standards in the subcontracted factory. We require our vendors to proactively communicate any challenges that would require the support of additional factories. In addition to that ongoing dialogue, we provide our team members with training on how to assess factories for subcontracting risk and identify unreported subcontracting, such as evaluating production capacity and production records versus planned production.
What do you think? Is that enough? Have the factory tragedies in Bangladesh changed your perspective on the clothing you want to buy? Would you be willing to pay more for ethically produced fast fashion? Does it make a difference to you where Target and Phillip Lim produce the capsule? Speak your mind in the comments.
· Target Announces Phillip Lim Collab, Revives Collab Excitement [Racked]
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