By Navita Kalra
Fashion designer and activist Sujeet Sennik is on a mission—a mission to end worker exploitation in the apparel industry. His mission began when, working as a designer for Walmart Canada, he discovered the deadly side of “fast fashion” in Bangladesh. He saw when the 2012 Tasreen Fashion factory fire, brought on by shoddy wiring, claimed the lives of over 100 workers and injured over 200 more. A few months later, when the eight-story, structurally unsound Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed, killing over 1000 people and injuring over 2000 more, Sennik left the industry in disgust.
Sennik has spent almost a year now trying to find ways to ensure equitable and safe conditions for workers. He has talked with workers, union leaders and other advocates in Canada and abroad and has discovered the severity of the issue and uncovered potential solutions. On Tuesday, January 28th as a keynote speaker for International Week he gave voice to the Bangladeshi apparel workers who could not be here to speak for themselves, and offered pragmatic options in ways that we can influence the clothing industry to help out garment workers.
These options include:
1. Shopping with retailers who have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
Europeans consumers and organizations, outraged like us at the senseless death and destruction at factories in Bangladesh, successfully lobbied numerous manufacturers to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Ratified in October 2013, this accord ensures enforceable fire and safety standards to protect the health and well-being of workers. So far, over 100 international retailers, such as H&M and Mango, have signed on. However, only one Canadian retailer, Loblaw, has thus far committed to the Accord. The Accord, Sennik points out, should not be confused with the less transparent and toothless North American agreement, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Some of the key differences include:
- The Accord is legally binding while the Alliance is not. For instance, under the Accord, if a worker is injured because of unsafe working conditions, he or she is guaranteed compensation and this in enforceable by a court of law. Under the Alliance, it is still just up to the retailer to decide if they will chose to provide compensation.
- Under the Accord, an independent third body conducts factory inspections. Under the Alliance it is, as it has been thus far, up to brands and retailers to conduct inspections.
- Under the Accord, a worker can refuse to enter an unsafe factory. This can prevent disasters like the one that occurred at Rana Plaza, where employees reported the structural damage at their facility to their superiors and were forced to go in to work regardless. The Alliance provides no such provisions for worker safety.
Bangladesh is not the only developing nation with unsafe working conditions for apparel workers. Hopefully, the Accord will serve as a model for other nations as well.
2. Petition for a living wage for third world workers.
A living wage is defined as enough money to allow a worker to buy food to feed themselves and their family, pay for rent, pay for transportation to and from work, provide education for their children, pay for healthcare, buy basic clothing, and have a little money left over for emergencies.
As Sennik emphasizes, the minimum wage in many countries is, sadly, far below the living wage. For example, at the start of 2013, the minimum wage in Bangladesh was a mere 11% of the living wage. If you believe that garment workers deserve a living wage, Sennik urges you to take a few minutes to sign the petition for a living wage at www.cleanclothes.org.
3. Use your smart phone to make more informed purchases.
The smartphone has really revolutionized shopping, Sennik points out, and as such has revolutionized the ways in which we can make more ethical purchases. For instance, with our smartphones we can:
a) Access Fair Trade goods.
The Fair Trade Certified Mark guarantees greater rights for garment workers, including but not limited to a living wage. Sennik shows that Fair Trade items are not just limited to one-off items like “beads and handbags made with hemp” anymore. Rather, Fair Trade companies are producing a wide variety for high quality, fashionable items. He gives the example of Oliberté, the first ever footwear manufacturing factory to be Fair Trade Certified, which is comparable to Aldo or any other shoe store at the local mall.
b) Access goods with a transparent supply chain.
Sennik points out how easy it is to find companies online that provide great quality and a transparent supply chain. He gives the example of one such company, Everlane, that produces Banana Republic-esque separates and accessories. Everlane posts all of its manufacturers online so you always know where your clothes are coming from. Sennik notes that sometimes other companies, such as the Hudson’s Bay Company, will provide details of some of their manufacturers but as a rule you will not know all the manufacturers that a company deals with unless it is committed to total transparency.
c) Find out if a purchase is ethical.
Sennik recommends referring to a website called the Good Guide when making purchases. The Good Guide was founded by a Professor of Environmental and Labor Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. The website rates apparel, among other items, on a 10 point scale based on criteria related to health, safety and the environment. You can even download an app for the Good Guide and scan the barcode on an item while you are shopping to help you make an informed decision when you are at the checkout.
Sennik admits that it can seem like a Herculean task to reform an industry, but he believes that we, as consumers and citizens, have much more power than we realize. We are, as he puts it, the “carrot” for retailers and manufacturers—they depend on us for their livelihoods. He believes that by making the above seemingly minor changes in our buying behaviour we can even start a revolution and create a better future for the people who personally make over 90% of the clothes on our backs.
By Nick Peters
Sujeet Sennik is a fashion designer with a personal connection to the booming industry of ‘Fast Fashion.’
For many people, the term ‘Fast Fashion’ exploded into the common vernacular with the collapse of the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh last April. Rana Plaza was a 9 story building that collapsed in the middle of a work day and claimed 1129 lives.
Fast Fashion refers to the seemingly limitless mass production of simple and stylish clothes championed by clothing lines such as George by Wal-Mart and Joe Fresh by Loblaw. Within the last decade, Fast Fashion mentality initiated a ‘race to the bottom’ by clothing retailers where they outsourced clothing production to the world’s cheapest bidding countries. The winning bid went more and more to Bangladesh, which became the Mecca of cheap labour. Unfortunately in the whirlwind of the race to the bottom and all the bids being won in Bangladesh for its inexpensive production, there were the most vulnerable people taking on the cost of Bangladesh’s booming industry; the workers in the crowded, unsafe factories.
Rana Plaza wasn’t the first disaster for Bangladesh’s clothing production industry, and certainly won’t be the last, but it did catch the attention of its North American consumer countries. It also caused a media storm of exposure for many other multi-national corporations that were connected to the tragedy, for amongst the concrete rubble, twisted steel, and dead workers were many of the same shirts you could find in any closet in North America.
Sujeet Sennik has a more personal connection than most of us wearing the dead workers’ handicrafts. Mr. Sennik had designed clothing that was produced in Rana Plaza. He has since acknowledged his own responsibility for the tragedy that killed so many and his atonement has taken the shape of advocacy and awareness.
To Mr. Sennik, making positive change is not about boycotting Loblaw or Occupying Wal-Marts. He reminds people that there are still thousands of living workers who rely on these companies to put food on their tables in both North America and South East Asia. What he asks of North American consumers is to be conscious of what they choose to buy.
In an age when more and more people are making ethical decisions about where their coffee comes from and how large their carbon footprint is, Mr. Sennik compels us to bring it one step further and ask where our clothing comes from and whether those who made it were adequately paid and protected from harm.
It may seem difficult or inconvenient to do the research that could help support a system of fairness in the fashion industry, but there are many resources to help us make it easier to do so. On Sujeet Sennik’s blog, http://carbonraindesign.com/blog.html, he posts clothing lines and stores that have ethical, transparent supply chains (not to mention they’re fashion recommendations by a professional designer, double win).
Sujeet Sennik will speak at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science (CCIS) on the University of Alberta Campus on January 28, 2014, at 7:30pm in room 1-430 as part of International Week 2014.