An Open Letter to UNC President Ross and Chancellor Folt: Commit to the Bangladesh Safety Accord

Update: This article is now re-published in the Huffington Post (in slightly abridged form!)

I am writing as a blogger and graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill to express my concern about UNC’s current unwillingness to join with other private and public universities to support tougher safety standards for the purchase of UNC branded clothing. I fear that failure to do so will only rebound to negatively affect our own image into the future. I urge you to require all university licensees to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord.

As you well know, on the evening of April 23, 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500 in what has now been deemed the deadliest garment factory collapse in history. Since then, students across this nation have taken action. Through the hard work of United Students Against Sweatshops, the largest student coalition since the anti-apartheid movement, bringing together 150 University and college affiliates nationwide, twenty universities have signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord. This accord is an unprecedented, legally-binding agreement between apparel companies and global and Bangladesh unions that has been joined by over 150 brands and retailers worldwide. These universities now require that all of their licensees producing and sourcing goods from Bangladesh sign the Accord as well, forcing them to take responsibility for their subcontracted factories in a meaningful and committed way that can “transform the garment industry from deathtraps to safe workplaces.”

The universities that have signed the Accord have included prominent private institutions such as Duke, University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, and large state schools similar in size and reputation to UNC-Chapel Hill, such as Michigan, Penn-State, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and University of Washington-Seattle.

It has been exciting to witness such a diverse range of institutions that have demonstrated an investment in valuing workers’ voices and lives. It has thus been disappointing and frustrating that neither of you, President Ross and Chancellor Folt, has made any kind of similar commitment on this issue.

Since the fall, the UNC End Deathtraps coalition has been campaigning persistently to get Chancellor Folt to sign the Accord. Workers, students, community members, the Chapel Hill Town Council, and the University’s Licensing Labor Code advisory Committee (LLCAC) – a committee composed of faculty, students and administrators – have strongly recommended that the Accord is the best option for both workers and UNC.

Despite this adoption of best practices elsewhere, President Ross, your recent memo, delivered the night before the one year anniversary of Rana, states that licensees producing and sourcing goods from Bangladesh should be given the option to sign on to either the Bangladesh Accord or the Alliance for Worker Safety. But the Alliance is a company-controlled, non-binding agreement that has been critiqued for its exclusion of workers and their representatives and for its failure to obligate brands to pay for factory safety renovations. If licensees choose to sign the Alliance, then they would not be required to make any tangible changes in garment and apparel factory workplace safety. Instead, they would be resorting to the same self-regulatory approaches that have tragically failed workers far too often. They would be, in essence, doing what they have already done.

Allowing brands to continue to supply to UNC whether or not they sign the Accord would allow current suppliers like North Carolina based VF Corp., owner of North Face, Jansport, Vans, and Timberland, to continue to escape accountability for their workers’ safety. VF Corporation has an alarmingly sizeable presence in Bangladesh, sourcing from 91 factories and employing 190,000 workers. Despite its many safety violations that have demonstrated deep negligence and disregard for human rights and safety, including a 2010 factory fire that killed twenty-nine workers in a VF supplier factory, VF is refusing to sign the Accord.

UNC’s failure to insist that all licensees sign the Accord only allows VF’s blatant disregard for worker safety to go unchecked. This not only threatens workers’ lives but also negatively impacts UNC’s image. Do you really want to imagine a situation in which a woman’s body is hauled out of an unsafe factory clutching a garment made by VF Corporation, a company with which UNC has a sizeable contract? I know that you are both people who are regarded as having high ethical standards, and I’m sure you would not want this on your conscience.

The LLCAC has worked constructively to examine our standards. As Dr. Steve May, a professor on the committee put it, “There was no doubt in our mind that the Accord would be the best option for workers and UNC. Our committee saw very few reasons to go with the Alliance and plenty of risks.”

Given that most of the other major licensees with collegiate production in Bangladesh have signed the Accord, including Adidas, Knight’s Apparel, Fruit of the Loom, and Top of the World, this recent decision made by Tom Ross and supported by you, Chancellor Folt, to give brands the option to ‘choose’ between the Alliance or the Accord seems to stem from a reluctance to terminate VF corporation’s contract if it does not join the Accord. What is UNC’s interest in protecting VF’s Bangladesh operations?

On the contrary could you not make an argument that the more UNC supports the Accord, the greater is the chance that jobs might come home to North Carolina’s textile factories that were priced out of the global market by our collective indifference to the conditions that foreign workers slaved in overseas?

The Chapel Hill town council has recognized this. After being approached by University students, they agreed to require that their city uniforms only be sourced from apparel producers that have signed on to the Accord. As Maria Palmer, town council member put it, “I believe North Carolina workers should be able to compete on a level playing field, and for the textile corporations like Greensboro-based VF to take their manufacturing jobs to Asia and pay their workers less than $100 per month and force them to work in dangerous and difficult conditions, and say they can not do anything about it, is a slap in the face of our workers here as well as abroad.”

It is embarrassing that UNC’s leadership has chosen to keep a contract with a corporation that has not only killed 29 people in Bangladesh, but has worsened conditions in the state by abandoning its local workers. And it is beyond disappointing that you both have chosen to side with a corporation over the needs and requests of its workers, your students, and the community in which you both live.

For the last few years, UNC has been plagued by plagiarism scandals and charges of massive Title IX violations. I was encouraged by a recent email you sent, Chancellor Folt, in honor of sexual assault awareness month, in which you stressed the importance of educating “our communities about the impact of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence.”

I would love to see the same amount of concern for the mostly female labor force in the garment industry, many of whom are the same age as the students here in Chapel Hill. These young women are often fired, sexually harassed, and even assaulted for daring to speak up against the injustices they face daily. As Aleya Akter, a Bangladeshi worker who visited UNC this month revealed to students, “When I would go home from work, hired thugs from management would harass me on the street and make threats to me.”

President Ross and Chancellor Folt, I urge you to reaffirm your commitment to the highest ethical standards and to demonstrate that our university will never sanction behavior that treats workers as though they were disposable. We are all citizens of the same global community, and this is a pressing human rights issue. As leaders of a major university with a prestigious reputation, you could really make a difference both in Bangladesh and by setting an example for your students. It’s time to do the right thing and require all university licensees to sign the Accord. That is the Carolina Way.

At the one year anniversary of Rana (photo courtesy of ILRF).

At the one year anniversary of Rana (photo courtesy of Solidarity Center).

Are you a UNC student/alum/supporter? Want to let President Ross and Chancellor Folt know that you want them to support the Accord?

To contact President Ross: Phone: (919) 962-9000 and Email: tomross@northcarolina.edu

To contact Chancellor Folt: Phone: (919) 962-1365 and Email: chancellor@unc.edu

Tweet @ChancellorFolt End Deathtraps! Do the right thing for workers and UNC! #SaveLivesAddTheAccord

My Related Posts:

Bangladesh Factory Fires: Why Brands Are Accountable and Must Compensate Victims Now

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Kahindo Mateene: An African Designer Making a Difference

Designer Kahindo Mateene is producing a line of clutches using scraps from her line of apparel, Modahnik.

Designer Kahindo Mateene is producing a line of clutches upcycling scraps from her line of apparel, Modahnik.

When designer Kahindo Mateene came to the United States at the tender age of seventeen to attend college, her classmates couldn’t stop asking where she got her clothes. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo who had also lived and traveled extensively in Africa, Europe, and North America, the global nomad was a little taken aback by the attention she received for her vibrant, multi-cultural hand-made designs. After studying fashion at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago, Kahindo was finally able to pursue her dream of creating a line that would fuse her African heritage with western design sensibilities. In 2009 she launched Modahnik, a sophisticated, sexy couture collection that features bright colors and bold prints for the every-day, modern woman. Besides earning her respect in the fashion industry and a spot in season twelve of Project Runway (yes girlfriends, the Project Runway), Modahnik has also given her a platform to share her culture with the world and give back to women in Africa.

Angeline sews a Modahnik clutch.

Angeline, a ‘mama’ from Mamafrica, sews a Modahnik clutch.

In 2011 Kahindo created a line in Kenya using fair trade practices, and just recently she launched a Kickstarter campaign for Mamafrica, an amazing organization (which I wrote about here) that provides economic opportunity, education, and healing arts programs for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These women, or ‘mamas,’ most of whom are recovering from trauma as both rape and war survivors, will be making clutches from the repurposed fabric left over from previous Modahnik collections. As Kahindo cites in her moving story about Aswifewe, one of the Mamafrica women who is a rape survivor, “the support of this Kickstarter project gives Aswifewe and other women like her the chance to have a new life, escape sexual violence, and support her family by finding work with Mamafrica in making our clutches.” The Kickstarter campaign ends April 20 and the time is running out, gfs!

Kahindo cites the Sapeurs, a sartorial subculture from the DRC, as one of her main inspirations.

Kahindo cites the Sapeurs, a sartorial subculture from the DRC, as one of her main inspirations.

I was thrilled to be able to talk to Kahindo more about her project with Mamafrica, her perspective on ethical fashion, and her aesthetic inspirations. Her passion and energy is contagious, and I felt like we could have easily chatted for hours. It was fascinating to learn about her design process, and from where she draws ideas for her collections.  She cites traveling to new places as a guaranteed form of inspiration for her, since it opens her mind and creativity to new tastes, sounds, culture, architecture, and people.  She also mentioned menswear, the shows Game of Thrones and Mad Men, and the sharp architectural edges of the Louvre in Paris as recent inspirations for her line. Of course she frequently draws from Africa, particularly the avant-garde art and culture of the Congo. She grew up admiring the spirit of the ‘Sapeurs,’ a sartorial subcultural group celebrated for their elegance, originality, and flair.

From the Modahnik Spring/Summer 2014 collection. The line has the tagline of "Modern. African. Ethical."

From the Modahnik Spring/Summer 2014 collection. The site has the tagline of “Modern. African. Ethical.”

The fashion world has long been fascinated by Africa, with designers from Louis Vuitton to Gwen Stefani pulling inspiration from the continent for their collections. While the clothes have often been gorgeous, many have questioned the potentially exploitative practice of using African aesthetics for the “financial and cultural benefits of the West,” especially if they are not incorporating African textiles in their designs or giving back to the communities from which they are derived. Even though Kahindo does think this can be problematic, she also sees the benefits of someone with as huge a platform as Stefani bringing attention to African fashion. Still, she does not want Africa to become a ‘trend.’ This is why she creates her bold prints from tailored pieces of silk that are sophisticated and classic. As she put it, “We’ve made fashion into this disposable thing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I made a dress for a friend six years ago, and she wore it to an event a couple of months ago. The colors and cuts are truly timeless.”

She also believes in the importance of using her privileged position to give back to the women in her home country. This partnership with Mamafrica is important to her because as she puts it,

“I know that I’m blessed to be in the States to pursue my dream, and I know if it wasn’t for circumstance, it could have been me. My hometown of Goma has been the epicenter of the conflict in the Congo since 1994 and is where a lot of women have been raped. I truly believe in the healing power of the arts, and I would love to use my craft to help empower women healing from trauma. This collaboration will be empowering them with job skills while allowing them to take part in the design process with me. It touches on so many issues that I’m passionate about: job creation, the healing arts, creative expression, ethical consumerism, and empowering women.”

Supporting the mamas will help provide a better life for their children too!

Supporting the mamas will help provide a better life for their children too!

Indeed, Kahindo believes that along with creating sustainable jobs, educating and empowering women is the key to poverty reduction in the Congo and Africa. Her late father instilled the importance of education in her, and pushed for all of his children to attain life’s possibilities regardless of their gender. It is no wonder then that the Brigham Young quote, “You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation,” resonates so deeply. She hopes that this partnership will help create and strengthen educational and economic opportunities for the mamas that will allow them to provide for their families and give their children access to a better life.

Kahindo dreams of one day revitializing the textile industry in Africa.

Kahindo dreams of one day revitializing the textile industry in Africa.

As for the future of ethical fashion, Kahindo believes times are changing. In the wake of global factory fires in countries like Bangladesh, companies are beginning to bring production back stateside as they are faced with human rights violations and growing costs overseas. With that shift in consciousness she hopes that there will also be more of a demand for African-owned brands that put money back into the local economies. The continent is not short of entrepreneurs (and boasts the highest rate of female entrepreneurship in the world), and it is certainly not short of tailors and creative people! Since almost 99% of African textiles are imported from overseas, she dreams of one day helping to revitalize the industry by producing quality clothing for export. And with her ties to different countries throughout the continent, she hopes to collaborate with other co-operatives in the future.

But for now, Kahindo is focusing on her Kickstarter for Mamafrica, which ends in 30 days, on April 20! If the amount is not met, then the project will receive no donations. Even a dollar helps, and you can get a Mamafrica clutch if you contribute a little more! If you can not donate, then please spread the word.  Come on girlfriends, let’s do this!!

The women of Mamafrica, in front of a sign that reads "We Denounce and We Say NO to Violence Against Women!"

The women of Mamafrica, in front of a sign that reads “We Denounce and We Say NO to Violence Against Women!”

Update: A version of this article was re-published on The Huffington Post.

My Related Posts:

Mamafrica: Sewing Women’s Lives for a Better Future in Conflict-Ridden Congo

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The Year’s Fiercest Cultural Figures

Sooo (drum roll please) it’s officially time for the list of 2013’s (and a bit of January) fiercest figures, and just in time for the Lunar New Year (we’re going global girlfriends)! And trust, this past year really brought it with the incredible people and movements who didn’t just encompass fierceness, but defined it. As I mentioned in my 2012 round-up, fierceness to me is all about  those “who challenge the norm, go against the grain, and beat to their own drum. It’s standing up for what you believe in, thinking outside the box, and fighting for equality and social justice.” Needless to say it was a little difficult to pick who would appear on this much coveted (at least by me) list, but somehow, I managed to get over my Libra indecisiveness and get. it. done. So, let’s do this.

Fashion:

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Bangladesh workers and United Students against Sweatshops in solidarity (photo courtesy of USAS.org).

Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh: 2012 was by all accounts a pretty depressing year for fashion, but in April 2013 the horrifying images of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Savar, Bangladesh seemed to finally shock the world out of its acquiescence. Over 100 apparel corporations from nineteen countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia (including H&M, C&A, Zara, Primark and Tesco) signed the unprecedented, legally binding agreement brokered by non-profit advocacy organizations The International Labor Rights Forum and Worker’s Rights Consortium – in solidarity with Bangladesh workers – that required retailers to fund independent safety inspections of their facilities and give workers a voice to negotiate on working conditions and higher wages. United Students against Sweatshops, a college student activist group that knows how to keep shit real, have so far successfully pressured NYU, Temple, Duke, and University of Pennsylvania to stop doing business with companies that produce clothing in sweatshops and refuse to sign the Accord.  They also demanded that the four largest retailers that produce college-logo apparel – Fruit of the Loom, Knight’s Apparel, Adidas, and Top of the World – sign as well. And guess what? They. did. Can we talk?? There’s still plenty of work that needs to be done, as North American companies such as Wal-Mart (ugh, go away already), Gap (your swing dance ads were cute, your constant abuse of child labor? Not so much. Oh and congrats on winning the Public Eye award for the worst human rights and environmental violations. You rock like that), Target, Disney and Children’s Place have refused to sign and offer victims compensation, even pressuring US lawmakers to cut a provision in a bill that would have promoted better labor standards in Bangladesh.  Still, with European retailers signing on and charges being brought against factory owners and government figures, it’s clear that an industry that has always had a tendency to displace accountability is starting to change. Mad props to the mainstream media for keeping not just Bangladesh in the headlines, but for also covering the garment industries in countries like Cambodia, Haiti, and India. And the NPR series that detailed the global industry involved in making one t-shirt? Fab.

The Model Alliance, a labor union aimed to improve working conditions for models, passed an unprecedented labor law in NY for child models (photo courtesy of modelalliance.org)

The Model Alliance, a labor group for fashion models, passed an unprecedented labor law in NY for child models (photo courtesy of modelalliance.org)

New law protects rights for underage models: The Model Alliance, a labor organization founded in early 2012 for fashion models working in the American fashion industry, decided they needed to do something to protect young models from exploitation. So they lobbied Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill guaranteeing underage models the same rights and protections in New York State as other child performers, including regulation of work hours and wage oversight. Susan Scafidi, the academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, argued that it was one of the biggest developments in a century in terms of fashion and labor law, “bringing a whole new group under labor protection.” Talk about getting it done.

After worldwide protests when hazardous chemicals were found in children's clothes, Burberry committed to being detox-free by 2020 (photo courtesy of Ecouterre).

Did you get the memo Burberry? Toxic is SO last season! (photo courtesy of Ecouterre).

Environmental Exposes: Last year Greenpeace made this list for writing a report that revealed the toxins in our clothes, sparking a global protest movement that effectively led to twelve global fashion leaders like Nike, H&M and Zara to commit to the elimination of hazardous chemicals released into our clothes and water. Yeah GP, you do that. This year they released another report; that “hazardous, potentially hormone disrupting chemicals” were found in numerous children’s brands, from Burberry to Adidas to Disney. After some fierce social media campaigning and live demonstrations, Burberry committed to toxic-free clothing by 2020. While many of these deadlines seem far away (this article breaks down why and how  change can come sooner) it’s clear that transparency in the fashion industry is starting to be taken seriously, and why shouldn’t it be? We only come in direct physical contact with textiles for 99% of our lives! Want to get involved? Check out Greenpeace’s Detox campaign and sign their manifesto. Toxic is so last season.

Carmen Carrera, a transgender model, is auditioning to be a Victoria's Secret Angel (photo courtesy of Getty Images).

Carmen Carrera, a transgender model, is auditioning to be a Victoria’s Secret Angel. You go girlfriend! (photo courtesy of Getty Images).

Carmen Carrera/Elliot Sailors/Casey Legler: All three of these women defied heteronormative views of beauty this past year, with Sailors (a former swimsuit model) and Legler (an artist and athlete) working as male models and transgender model Carmen Carrera making headlines for her campaign to be the next Victoria’s Secret Angel. But as Casey Legler wrote in this fantastic essay, to focus this conversation in a sensationalist way on gender would be not just limiting and potentially harmful to marginalized communities, but would also be ignoring a historical tradition (as this amazing photography series of the ‘modern dandy’ demonstrates)  of others who have come before her. As she put it, “This is not just about gender. It is about being fierce.” Isn’t everything about being fierce? Seriously though, love. them.

A$AP Rocky: Trust. Believe it or not, his collaboration with designer Jeremy Scott has helped to challenge gender boundaries in hip hop in a way that no other rapper has done before. Respect.

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A$AP Rocky and Jeremy Scott’s fashion collaboration may be more subversive than you think…

Bethann Hardison: Fashion model legend Hardison of The Diversity Coalition didn’t just write an open letter to the governing fashion bodies of the major fashion cities blasting the industry for its “white-washed model casts,” she also called out the designers who were the worst offenders, sparking a larger conversation about racism on the runways. But as Naomi Campbell put it when she threw it down (as only Naomi knows how) with this interviewer, change isn’t going to happen by pointing fingers. It needs to be systemic. Although the fall shows did include more models of color, there still needs to be a push for what Hardison notes is a failure to commit to consistent change. And that, as scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham wrote in this essay, might take completely restructuring the industry’s dynamics of “race, power, and profit.” It probably won’t happen overnight, but at least the conversation has started, right?

Christian Vs. Barney’s New York: After being arrested by Barney’s for daring to buy a couture belt, nineteen year old student Trayon Christian sued the luxury retailer for racial profiling and false arrest. The media coverage inspired others, including Rob Brown of HBO’s Treme, to reveal their own personal stories of being profiled and arrested by retailers ranging from Barneys New York to Macy’s for what some labeled as simply ‘shopping while black,’ challenging the notion that we live in a post-racial world. And when Jay-Z failed to show solidarity by refusing to cancel his collaboration with Barney’s, the ensuing outrage added another level of complexity to the debate.

The Paul Frank/Native designer collab featured this gorgeous necklace by Autumn Gomez of The Soft Musuem (photo courtesy of cnn.com).

The Paul Frank/Native designer collab featured this gorgeous necklace by Autumn Gomez of The Soft Musuem (photo courtesy of cnn.com).

Native Artisan/Paul Frank collaboration:  I’ve written before how the fashion industry has a history of treating Native people like trends, and the ‘Pow-Wow’ party that designer Paul Frank threw for Fashion’s Night Out was a great example of that. But then, something really rad happened. Paul Frank’s team didn’t just apologize after the ensuing backlash, they expressed interest in developing a capsule collection with Native designers and donating the proceeds to a Native cause! Love me some self-reflection. I mean seriously, how many people in positions of privilege are willing to clock their own T? The amazing ladies of Beyond Buckskin and Native Appropriations, Jessica Metcalfe and Adrienne Keene, respectively, helped to launch this collection, which featured pieces by four amazing designers. And when Paul Frank failed to mention in his press releases the reasons for why this collaboration came about in the first place, Adrienne took to her blog to remind everyone that “remembering the origins reminds us of the inherent power structures in society (and therefore the fashion industry) and that it took hundreds of angry voices.” It is these voices that influenced not just the Frank collection but also brought greater visibility to the issue of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry, demonstrating how the power of the blogosphere coupled with community activism can actually spark social change, when it’s done right (I’m looking at you ‘Invisible Children/Kony 2012′).

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Bob Bland of Manufacture NY, which will provide production facilities to local designers (photo courtesy of Ecouterre).

Designers bring back local production: The New York manufacturing industry alone has seen a 90 percent decrease in jobs since the early 1900s. That’s pretty depressing. Which is why it’s so refreshing that designers like Bob Bland, Kelly Jones and Dana Arbib are providing facilities and support in the U.S. for upcoming independent designers who need help getting started in an industry that can be tough to break through. Mad props to these chicas for encouraging local production and consumer transparency. Mad. props.

Fierce People/movements who challenged gender/sexuality ‘norms’:

Students protest outside of the Department of Education, demanding better Title IX enforcement (photo courtesy of Feministing).

Students protest outside of the Department of Education, demanding better Title IX enforcement (photo courtesy of Feministing).

The Global Movement to end sexual violence: There have always been people and movements that have worked on fighting sexual violence, but 2013 was the year that witnessed a true shift in cultural consciousness, becoming blatantly clear that ignoring or brushing aside sexual assault was no longer an option. In the United States, a coalition of hundreds of sexual assault survivors, advocates and allies came together through the ‘IX Network’ to combat campus rape culture, with its mission being to “support all survivors, to change how colleges and universities handle sexual assault, and to change a culture where violence is normalized.” Federal complaints were filed nationwide against universities that had a history of treating sexual misconduct as a less egregious crime than plagiarism, allowing, for example, serial predators back on campus after they had written book reports and purposefully under-reporting the number of sexual assault cases that had occurred in a year. The blogosphere (which has arguably transformed the feminist conversation) expectedly kept up with these stories, but surprisingly so did the mainstream media, forcing this long ignored injustice into the public sphere. And then, there was the outrage over the rape in Steubenville, sparking broader debate about cultural misogyny, rape culture, media framing of sexual violence, and even trigger warnings.

A young woman protests sexual violence after the gang rape in Dehli, India.

A young woman protests sexual violence after the gang rape in Delhi, India (photo courtesy of usilive.org).

These conversations were connected globally after the brutal gang rape of a student from Delhi, India. Even Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat made her voice heard, giving a fiery press conference on the rights of women in her country that was pretty much the fiercest. thing. ever. And of course, who can forget the massive online campaign forcing Facebook to revisit their policies on misogynist hate speech? Changing how our culture treats sexual assault and violence is going to take a lot of work, but I’m hopeful that survivor activist Angie Epifano is right when she said, “I think people will look back in 20 or 30 years and say, ‘This is when things started to improve.'”

Edith Windsor: Her Supreme Court win striking DOMA down guaranteed rights to an entire group of people. That pretty much redefines fierce.

Edith Windsor, redefining fierce after her Supreme Court win.

Edith Windsor, redefining fierce after her Supreme Court win.

Malala Yousafzai: Why is 16 year old Malala on this list? Um, let’s see. Girls education advocate. Survived an attack by the Taliban, and then went on to write a book about it. Oh, and get nominated for a Nobel Peace prize. Whateves. I do that like every day. Not to mention she basically told President Obama drone attacks were fueling terrorism and killing innocent people in Pakistan. As she put it in her book I Am Malala, “We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.” Now that’s a guiding post quote for every activist! Check out this interview with Jon Stewart, whose mouth literally drops as Malala expresses her belief that the best way to fight those who are trying to oppress you is not with cruelty, but with dialogue, education, and peace.

Roya Mahboob and Ory Okollah: I’ve written before about how peeps in the West tend to take technology for granted, while those who live in countries where technology is less accessible often use new media as a powerful tool for change. Mahbook and Okollah are no exception, as they are both using the blogosphere to give women a platform in their countries of Afghanistan and Kenya respectively. Their hope is that by encouraging these young women to connect with each other and make their voices heard, they will feel empowered to transform their communities and push countries forward. As Okollah put it, “We talk about African governments like they’ve been dropped from Mars, you know? They come from us.” Truth. 

Ory Okolloh didn't just "put Kenya on the map as a tech innovation hub," she's using her position to empower future female leaders of Africa (photo courtesy of good.is)

Ory Okolloh didn’t just “put Kenya on the map as a tech innovation hub,” she’s using her position to empower future female leaders of Africa (photo courtesy of good.is).

Uruguay: Defying stereotypes, Uruguay passed a bill in favor of marriage equality, adding to Latin America’s reputation as a region that values gay and trans rights as human rights and is more progressive in that sense than the U.S. and many Western European nations (they’ve also edged ahead of the U.S. in women’s political leadership). But because they’re ‘third-world’ they’re totes backwards right? Hmm….

Charlotte Laws:  After computer hackers from the revenge porn site ‘Is Anyone Up?’ stole pictures of her daughter, Lawson waged a ‘war’ against revenge porn creep Hunter Moore, successfully helping to both pass anti-revenge porn legislation in the state of California and launch a FBI investigation that led to his arrest. Guess even Moore couldn’t deal with a bad ass mama taking on the misogynist internet.

Charlotte Laws took on revenge porn creep Hunter Moore...and won.

Does Hunter Moore regret the day he tried to mess with this Badass mama?

Sarah Slamen and Wendy Davis:  After Wendy Davis pulled a marathon filibuster to stop a restrictive anti-abortion measure in Texas, Sarah Slamen testified at a state Senate committee and was thrown out by troopers after she called out Texas’s hypocrisy in upholding the death penalty and refusing to teach sex education in schools. The Texas legislature received widespread criticism over the stifling of citizen speech, and her powerful statement of “Excuse me, this is my government, ma’am. I will judge you,” was reblogged and tweeted like crazy.  Talk about shutting. it. DOWN.

The Selfie: Ok, so I know a lot of people groaned when ‘the selfie’ was picked as the word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary, claiming that young teen millennials (specifically girls), had reached a narcissistic, desperate low. But I loved this article that argued for a smarter conversation than always viewing young women as passive victims (imagine that!) and not as agents of their own lives. As this blogger put it,

“The act of women taking selfies is inherently feminist, especially in a society that tries so hard to tell women that our bodies are projects to be worked on and a society that profits off of the insecurities that it perpetuates. Selfies are like a ‘fuck you’ to all of that, they declare that ‘hey I look awesome today and I want to share that with everyone’ and that’s pretty revolutionary.”

Beyonce isn't just a feminist, she's a fierce feminist. Which is the best kind there is, right GFs?

Beyonce isn’t just a feminist, she’s a ‘fierce’ feminist. Which is the best kind there is, right GFs?

Feminism became cool again: Any movement promoting equality should automatically get respect, but feminism has often suffered from political (thanks Limbaugh), social, and media backlash that has resorted to sensationalist depictions of feminists as ‘bra-burners’  (which never actually happened btw) or worse. In past years we’ve heard from singers like Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson who have resisted the feminist label, which is why it was so refreshing to see so many embrace it this past year. There was Beyoncé mentioning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted talk “We should all be Feminists” as an inspiration for her video series on imperfection accompanying her latest album. Sixteen year old music sensation Lorde openly spoke about her feminism, not backing down when Selena Gomez fans attacked her for criticizing the pop singer’s sexist lyrics. John Legend, after performing at a charity event for Chime for Change, stated his opinion that “All men should be feminists. If men care about women’s rights, the world would be a better place.” Can I get a PREACH?! Even Miley Cyrus claimed in an interview “I feel like I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world cause I tell women not to be scared of anything” (yes Miley, I was totes afraid of twerking until you ‘introduced’ it to us…thank you for showing me the light!). Amy Poehler and Ellen Paige also weighed in, questioning in interviews why some celebrities balked at the term. As Amy Poehler put it,  “That’s like someone being like, ‘I don’t really believe in cars, but I drive one every day and I love that it gets me places and makes life so much easier and faster and I don’t know what I would do without it.'” True. dat.

#solidarityisforwhitewomen: This hashtag went viral, reminding us that while feminism is dope, it needs to be intersectional to really work.

Subjectified and Do Tell: Melissa Tapper Goldman’s documentary and the blog project that came out of it offers authentic, uncensored personal stories about women’s sexuality that we too often ignore in a society that is in turn both sex-saturated and silencing of honest (sexual) experiences. Thank you girlfriend.

Evan Rachel Wood: Speaking. of. that. This statement by actress Evan Rachel Wood. Omg. THIS.

Laverne Cox: One of the stars of  the new series “Orange is the New Black,” Cox has become a transgender icon and activist who with co-guest Carmen Carrera schooled (in the most gracious way eva) Katie Couric for expressing a fixation with gender reassignment surgery. As she put it:

“The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.”

Germany offers third gender option: Every year, there are children who are born of indeterminate gender. Instead of parents being forced to choose their gender identity for them, Germany has given a third option on birth certificates so parents can leave it up to their child to decide whether to identity as male, female, or neither. Heyy Germany, we see you!

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler host the Golden Globes: Sarah Silverman is probably right that making a big deal about women in comedy is a little passe, but Tina and Amy rocked it in both 2013 and 2014 and proved themselves to be two of the best hosts of any award show eva. I mean seriously, this video deserves to be on this list for that Leo DiCaprio dig alone (you know you loved it).

Media and Culture

Sorry Murdoch, you didn't win this time buddy.

Sorry Murdoch, you didn’t win this time buddy.

FCC ditches media mergers: This was SO huge. I’ve written before about how an increasingly corporatized media landscape that puts the vast majority of media into the hands of the few is challenging our democracy. So it was pretty depressing when the FCC announced they were considering changing the one rule that was preventing Rupert Murdoch from buying out pretty much every media outlet. But hundreds of thousands of peeps took action and stopped Murdoch in his tracks in a citizen protest that was pretty much epic. Love.

Occupy’s Legacy: Speaking of citizen protests, whether or not the members of the movement are still camped outside of Zuccoti Park in New York is irrelevant. Their economic framing of the 1% vs. the 99% has resonated with the American public, completely changing the conversation at home, in workplaces, newsrooms, and the political sphere. Language matters.  And by reframing the discourse on inequality, they also broadened the conversation beyond just Wall Street and economics.

The tents have gone, but the language has stayed.

The tents have gone, but the language and impact has stayed.

Comics take on racism/privilege: Speaking of that. Did anyone else get this sense that American media and culture was discussing privilege and racism in a way that we’ve typically been reluctant to do? Whether we were debating the outcomes of the Trayvon Martin trial, the ‘Affluenza’ defense used to excuse a wealthy teenager’s crimes, and the data revealing that African-Americans are far more likely to be singled out for drug arrests and random frisks, it was clear that Americans were finally starting to acknowledge that we hardly live in a post-racial world. Going through all the media coverage would be a bit much (I mean, this post needs to end at some point, right?), so I’ll highlight three comedy routines that really captured our current cultural moment. This ‘Key & Peele’ sketch on the hoodie, this Louis CK routine that perfectly explains the historical context of racism, and this routine by stand-up comedian Aamer Rahmen where he covers issues like inequality, colonization, slavery, war, and internalized racism as a way to break down why the idea of ‘reverse racism’ doesn’t work. In like, three minutes. You do that.

Edward Snowden: You know how he do. Exposed the massive surveillance program conducted by the U.S. government. Sparked a national privacy debate. Raised questions on the constitutionality of the program that might rein in the ability of the executive branch to conduct surveillance. From an ideological position, whether I’m condoning or condemning him is not the issue. The issue is whether he meets this blog’s definition of fierceness, and based on that I think to not include him on this list would be a straight up act of treason (oh no. I. didn’t. Oh yes I did! Snap!)

Colbert’s report on Mayor Johnny Cummings: This profile on Vicco, Kentucky, the smallest town in the nation to pass a non-discrimination ordinance that included sexual orientation, was hilarious and a wonderful turn on Appalachian stereotypes. And I might have cried just a little bit (shhh…don’t tell).

Antoinette Tuff: The stunning 911 tape of bookkeeper Tuff, who worked at an elementary school in Georgia, talking a gunman into surrendering to police went viral because of the compelling way she used empathy and compassion to connect with a mentally ill man who was in despair. Tuff not only shared her own stories of her struggles and attempted suicide during the call, she even told the young man that she loved him. Her story is a testament to how, as scholar bell hooks put it in her piece “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” the “moment we choose to love, we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.” Amen. And on a related note…

bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry OMG: Did these two really just sit down and cover politics, race, black womanhood, media, and love in one conversation? And was it even more brilliant, honest and critical an analysis than I expected it to be? Yes, they did, and yes, it was.

Misee Harris – the first Black Bachelorette: So you don’t  think a reality television show has a place on this list huh? Why don’t you read this post and get back to me. You back yet? Ok chill, now that we’re on the same page (obvi), I think we can agree that starting your own campaign as a response to the racial exclusion of minorities on a popular television show and forcing a conversation about racism into the national spotlight is pretty. damn. fierce. The pediatric dentist/model/philanthropist is still in the spotlight, and has recently patented her own line of athletic mouthguards, advanced in casting for the show Shark Tank, and is also working on her own reality show that will present black women beyond the simple caricatures that are too often on our TV screens (I’m looking at you Atlanta Housewives)  Love. her.

Read more here: http://www.idahostatesman.com/2014/01/02/2953484/windsor-snowden-became-big-names.html#storylink=cpyMedia Mergers, not happening. (Big win: FCC Ditches Media consolidatiAppalachian stereotypes-Jon Stewart

Music/Theater/Dance:

Cyndi being Cyndi after her big Tony win!

Cyndi being Cyndi after her big Tony win!

Broadway makes history: The Tony Awards in 2013 were pretty epic. Four African American actors won awards, with 88 year old Cecily Tyson making history as the oldest person to win a Tony for a role that wasn’t originally written for a black woman. Not only that, but the two directing awards both went to women, including my girl Cyndi Lauper. Sure sometimes girls just wanna have fun, but sometimes they wanna win awards and make history too.

Pussy Riot/Riot Grrrls: This punk rock band from Russia makes the list again, for clocking the T on the Kremlin when they accused them of pulling a ‘publicity stunt’ for finally releasing them from jail…right before the Winter Olympics. Also, shout out to fellow riot grrrl bands The Shondes and Kathleen Hanna (the queen mother of all riot grrrls) and her band The Julie Ruin for their fierce new albums. Oh and we can’t talk about punk and not mention Rupaul, who spoke so much truth in a recent interview with Rolling Stone when he said, “Doing drag in a male-dominated society is an act of treason. It’s literally the most punk rock thing you can do.” And we’re done GFs, DONE.

BRITAIN LONDON PUSSY RIOT PROTEST

You gotta think twice before throwing shade at a riot grrrl….

Janelle Monae: We all know Monae’s music is off the hook (I mean her song Q.U.E.E.N. with Erykah Badu??), but it was her interview below that really gave me life. It’s here that you get insight into Ms. Monae’s true philosophy and vision. I loved when she talked about her ‘androids of the future,’ which she envisions as “the new woman, the new minority, the new gay” who are “deeply connected and committed to community.” I. die.

Prancing Elites: A few months ago, one of my homegirls sent me the video below as a congrats when I met a big deadline. An hour later, I still couldn’t get enough of this gender-bending dance troupe from Mobile, Alabama. Dancing in the ‘J-Setting’ style, which was popularized by the Beyoncé video, “Single Ladies,” the fearless group members have been celebrated by their hometown and even on the show ‘The Real’ in Los Angeles. So happy they met their Kickstarter…can’t wait to see them werk it out in 2014!

Six year old B-girl Terra: This girl is SO dope. And Badass. And fierce. And yes, I’m inspired by and look up to a six-year-old. Suck it. Be sure to check out her Facebook page!

Becky G: Much like Kitty Pryde, Mexican-American teenager and rapper/singer Becky G gained recognition when she posted remixes of songs on YouTube. Her song “Becky from the Block” was released in 2013, and the video features a shout-out to her Latin culture and plenty of bravado as she raps, “Right now its just who is that girl? But one day Imma be all around the world.” This. Girl.

Jenny Suk: Another YouTube sensation I can’t get enough of. Her cover of Justin Bieber’s ‘Boyfriend’ actually made me appreciate the song and Bieber (trust), but it was this cover of the song ‘Wildfire’ that made me a hardcore fan.

Valerie June: I’ve always loved peeps who can’t be put into a box, and I think after watching this teaser of her upcoming album you’ll agree that pigeonholing this Tennessee blues/country/folk/gospel singer would be pretty much impossible. Obsessed.

Qaadir Howard: Speaking of out of the box. Qaadir (aka Timaya) certainly isn’t new to the Youtube game – he’s  been putting out videos since 2007.  But I’ve been pretty much addicted to his channel since he kept it real in 2013 with this video about the shady politics of YouTube. He serves a little bit of everything – music, sketches, inspirational videos, and really, really hilarious rants. It literally hurts me to pick just a few of my favorite videos, but I would def check out  “The Wal Mart Terrorist,” “Get off My Phone Sanjay Gupta,” (Sanjaaaaay!!! LOL), his sketches on Nicki Minaj and “Gary Mars The Space Alien, his beautifully spiritual and humanist video “I Was Homeless For a Night,” and when actress Tracee Ellis Ross hilariously bombed him in her own video.  I also love me some inspirational Qaadir, like his videos on “Making Lasting Change” and the one posted below. Thank you Q, for always keeping it real and teaching us all how to “clock the T where it needs to be clocked!”

Can’t wait to see what this next year brings us! Does anyone else get this intense vibe that 2014 is going to be the year? For all of my girlfriends who have joined in the conversation and shared links with me on Facebook and Twitter, thank you. You have really enriched my knowledge of the world and I’m so grateful to all of you. Here’s to the fiercest. year. EVER!

And let me know in the comments below if there’s anyone else who should have been added to the list –  I’d love to hear from you!

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2012: The Year’s Fiercest Cultural Figures

 

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Bangladesh Factory Fires: Why Brands Are Accountable and Must Compensate Victims Now

Dhaka_Savar_Building_Collapse

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than a 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500.

On the evening of April 23, 2013, garment factory employees of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, pleaded with management to take notice of the sudden cracks that had appeared in the walls and foundations. Their requests for evacuation were ignored on the basis that the building owner, Sohel Rana, had just hired an engineer who had pronounced the building safe. The mostly female labor force, who were threatened with losing a month’s pay if they did not return, were ordered to work the next day. As they arrived at the building, the first thing they heard over the loudspeaker was this: “All the workers of Rana Plaza, go to work. The factory has already been repaired.” Just half an hour later, the eight-story building collapsed, killing over 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500. Local workers and relatives were some of the first on the scene, digging out mutilated bodies, including those of children who had been staying at the building’s day care center, from the rubble.

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Never again. Two victims hold each other amid the rubble of the Rana Plaza collapse (photo courtesy of Taslima Akhter).

And then, there was that picture. That haunting image of two people clinging to each other for survival, with their lower parts of their bodies buried under concrete and a tear of blood running down the man’s cheek. This photo served as a harsh reminder of what happens when we treat humans as just numbers, or as simply ‘cheap labor’ within a global supply chain that feeds the consumption patterns of the United States and European Union by delivering low-cost clothing from Bangladeshi factories to stores in the West. It is an industry that operates according to a logic of distance, in which a consumer is so removed from the condition under which a producer labors that they are less likely to have awareness, let alone any motivation to protest. The consumer was suddenly forced to get close and personal as people around the globe were confronted with the image of that heartbreaking final embrace.

Deemed the worst garment factory disaster in history, it implicated not just the lax regulations of the Bangladeshi garment industry, but companies such as Wal-Mart, The Children’s Place, H&M, Mango, Primark, Joe Fresh, and Benetton which used Bangladesh as a source of cheap labor. There were of course initial attempts to deny responsibility, with Wal-Mart claiming that they never contracted with the factory, and Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith dismissing the collapse as “not really serious” and, an “accident.”

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‘Accidents’ don’t happen again..and again. Bangladeshi Army personnel walks through the rows of burnt sewing machines in the aftermath of the Tazreen factory fire, which killed at least 117 people in November, 2012 (photo courtesty of Stringer/AFP/Getty Images).

The factory collapse of Rana was not an accident, as various government officials, corporations, and even certain media outlets have described it. An accident is something that is unexpected, that occurs infrequently, but also is something that is not necessarily preventable.  This tragedy was not an isolated event. It was, in fact, one of several hundred other factory incidents that have killed over 1,000 workers from 1990 to 2012 in Bangladesh, a country that employs four million garment workers, 85 percent of whom are women, in its growing garment industry. And, like the dozens of other factory fires that have been reported across the industry in countries like China, India, and Pakistan, it could have been prevented with proper safety measures and a workplace in which factory managers listened to workers’ concerns.

Walmart Bangladesh factories

Garment workers in Bangladesh, 85% of whom are women, are paid $37 a month…far below the living wage of $120 that is needed to survive. Unions, which can give workers a collective voice, are all but outlawed (photo courtesy of Reuters).

Ultimately, these deadly fires only reveal the exploitative working conditions of an industry that treats its workers as disposable items.  In Bangladesh, a country rich with culture and natural resources but ridden with poverty, the government has long viewed the garment industry as the path to improving a grim standard of living. Currently garments represent nearly 80 percent of the country’s manufacturing export income of $19.1 billion between 2011-2012, making it the second largest exporter of apparel in the world. Yet despite the industry’s rapid growth in the last thirty years, Bangladeshi workers are still the lowest paid garment workers in the world, earning a minimum of $37 a month – far below the living wage of $120 that is needed for basic household necessities. Workers’ efforts to organize for better pay and safety regulations are all but outlawed, and a new labor law that was passed in July has been criticized by labor advocates as actually weakening, rather than strengthening, protections for workers.

Politically connected owner (photo courtesy of AP)

In Bangladesh, factory owners are often entrenched in the political elite. Due to global outrage after the Rana Plaza fire, factory owner Sohel Rana was arrested (photo courtesy of AP).

This isn’t surprising, given that Bangladesh’s legal system has remained largely unchanged from the British imperial era, in which laws were designed to uphold the colonialist power structure and control the population. In fact, many factory owners and members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) are heavily involved in the political elite, often holding government positions that allow them to wield enormous political influence. Given the tremendous emphasis on maximizing wealth in the global economy, it is thus not surprising that governments of poorer countries like Bangladesh often sacrifice human rights at the consummate altar of economic ‘development.’

(photo courtesy of AFP)

Bangladeshi labor activist Kalpona Akter found Wal-Mart brands such as Faded Glory in the remains of the Tazreen factory fire. Brands place immense pressure on factories to produce cheap clothing on short deadlines (photo courtesy of AFP).

At the same time, the Bangladesh government may feel trapped when companies such as Wal-Mart and other big retailers place immense pressure on factories to produce forever falling prices by selling cheap and producing quickly on shorter deadlines. Low prices in the garment industry are, after all, the country’s best selling point in the global economy. So suppliers cut their prices at the expense of their workers, who are paid poverty wages and made to work excessive hours. Factory owners, squeezed by their buyers, often find their efforts to invest in factory safety undermined by the pressure to reduce costs.

Companies in turn claim that social auditing programs are an effective way to monitor working conditions in their factories, but these programs have been criticized as corporate-funded, voluntary, and a public relations cover. Who can forget the massive factory fire in Pakistan that killed more than 260 workers last year, which just three weeks before, had been granted certification by the social auditing group, Social Accountability International. Of course, companies could have saved lives by releasing their audit findings to the government and sharing them with Bangladeshi unions and labor rights groups, but they are under no obligation to do that given that these audits are confidential and are treated as their own private intellectual property. Instead, workers’ input is rarely taken into consideration, and those who do dare to complain are often harassed or even terminated.

As Mafusa, a survivor of the Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed at least 112 people last November, revealed:

 “We never got our salary on time. We were always informed one day before foreigners came for an audit. We had to clean, make everything neat and we were given instructions about what we had to say like that we get our salary always on the seventh of the month and about our working hours.”

To make matters worse, the global demand for cheap clothing forces many factories to subcontract their work to other suppliers, making it difficult for brands to trace who is making their clothes in an increasingly complex supply chain.

The ever increasing global demand has led to another flagrant human rights violation. Although child labor is illegal, recent reports have revealed the use of children as young as nine working in many of these factories. This reliance on child labor is the devastating consequence of not paying adults a living wage. Yet, instead of investing in workers’ rights and safety upgrades, apparel consumer companies will often choose to run from these factories once they learn that unauthorized work was used to produce their clothing, as Wal-Mart did after the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh.

Toronto Star Reporter Raveena Aulakh works undercover in a Bangladesh garment factory with a nine year old girl as her boss:

Several years ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote a now controversial piece arguing against the ‘anti-sweatshop’ movement, claiming that for many workers, sweatshops were the only viable option for making a living. He argued for labor advocates to fight for more sweatshops as the best option for workers in the Global South. In Bangladesh, women do indeed come to the cities from the rural areas to work in factories after fleeing environmental destruction and repressive family structures in their home villages. Yet, does that mean they should be forced to endure harassment and abuse from their predominantly male bosses? Or rely on precarious employment in which they are often paid less than their male counterparts, despite being the sole or primary breadwinners in their families? Shouldn’t they have a right to a workplace that doesn’t push their bodies to the point of exhaustion, that doesn’t fire them once they get pregnant, and that gives them a voice and treats them with a measure of dignity?

Morium Begum lost her baby (photo courtesy of thestar.com)

A Bangladesh factory that sews garments for The Gap and Old Navy was implicated in abusing their pregnant workers. Morium Begum, shown here with her husband Golzar, lost her baby after being forced to work 100 hours a week (photo courtesy of thestar.com).

Kristof may have been well-meaning, but his argument didn’t address the true intent of the anti-sweatshop movement, which is to progress the cause of workers’ rights and advocate for living wages by pressuring multinational corporations to improve factory conditions. The international climate is starting to change as people wake up to the fact that they shouldn’t put clothes on their back that were made in conditions that have not been seen in the West since the Industrial Revolution. Currently, over 100 apparel brands and retailers in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an unprecedented legally-binding agreement that was created by Bangladeshi and global trade unions in alliance with leading NGOs and the International Labor Organization (ILO) to ensure safety in Bangladeshi factories.  This five-year contract will require independent safety inspections of their facilities, public reporting, safety upgrades financed by brands, the integration of workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, and higher wages.

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“There’s an abundance of wealth in the industry, so why can’t we have fair treatment for workers?” – Sarah Ziff, model who protested with Bangladesh activists at Nautica’s Spring 2014 show.

The Accord has been hailed as a transformative move away from the corporate-controlled social auditing programs that rely on largely “voluntary, confidential, and top-down” initiatives. It has also been supported broadly, with senators, students, and fashion models protesting brands that have failed to commit to the agreement. And just recently, the Accord publicly disclosed information about the building safety of the 1,600 factories covered by the pact, bringing a measure of openness, transparency and accountability to an industry that has been shrouded in secrets.

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A safety effort proposed by North American retailers has been criticized for not being legally binding (photo courtesy of Inhabitat).

While notable (mostly European) companies such as H&M, Inditex (Zara), and Primark have signed the Accord, there are still a number of North American retailers that have been unwilling to join the agreement. U.S. industry leaders such as Gap and Wal-Mart launched the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative in July, a comparatively weak agreement that promises safety upgrades, a hotline to report complaints, and regular inspections without any legal commitment. The need for a legally binding agreement is even more pressing when considering that the $42 million raised by the companies involved in the initiative to improve factory infrastructure is paltry compared to the actual estimated cost of necessary improvements, which is $300,000 to $500,000 per factory. The companies that reject the accord cite concerns that the provision for legal enforcement through arbitration makes them more ‘vulnerable’ to class-action suits. But two law professors writing for the Los Angeles Times disputed this claim, stating that the only legal liability for signatories would be to abide by its terms. They further argue that in fact, Gap and Wal-Mart sign legally enforceable agreements all the time in their global business dealings, and that their reluctance to join the Accord stems from its purpose, which would be to help protect worker’s rights rather than simply facilitate the buying and selling of apparel for corporate profit. As they put it, “underlying the American firms’ objections, it appears, is the fear of both financial and moral responsibility.”

Relatives of Rana Plaza disaster victims form a human chain in

Relatives of Rana Plaza victims demand compensation from Wal-Mart, which along with other U.S. retailers such as Gap, Sears, and Children’s Place, have refused to pay compensation (photo courtesy of Abir Abdullah/EPA).

Even more distressing is that very few companies have initiated concrete proposals to secure compensation for the victims of either the Tazreen or Rana Plaza factory fires. The UN Guidelines on Business and Human Rights dictates that companies must go beyond simply defending human rights and actually take action in remedying these tragedies. And an internationally-recognized formula that has been implemented in compensation plans after numerous other building safety incidents and fires has determined that brands and retailers are the most accountable for the failings that led to the disasters. Companies that had a direct or indirect relationship with the Rana Plaza factory or Tazreen are thus responsible for paying a full and fair compensation to the wounded workers and the families of those who were killed, so that they can access the medical care they need and continue to help support their families. This is especially important in Bangladesh, where the lack of a safety net such as social security, unemployment, or medical aid exacerbates the poverty wages and miserable living conditions for workers.  Just recently in September, the Rana Plaza Compensation Coordination Committee consisting of various apparel brands, the Bangladesh government, local and global trade unions and NGOs, met to develop a mechanism dubbed the “Arrangement” by which compensation for the families of the disaster could be determined. Although some progress has been made, with brands like Loblaw and Primark just recently committing to long-term relief, far too many have failed to join the Arrangement, leaving workers with little hope for palpable improvement in their dismal conditions.

As Liana Foxvog of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) stressed,

“When global apparel brands establish factory inspection programs that are confidential and voluntary, they communicate to Bangladeshi managers that they see no reason for workers to be informed of workplace risks. When global brands create programs that circumvent union initiatives – as many of the North American brands that have created the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety are doing – they perpetuate the understanding within Bangladesh that solutions do not require workers’ having an independent voice and an equal place at the bargaining table. And when global brands don’t participate in the compensation for victims, they signal to Bangladesh’s leaders that it is okay to put workers lives at risk and walk away from the consequence.”

The time is now for multinational corporations to stop hiding behind deceptive and dishonest corporate social responsibility schemes that rely on corporate-sponsored monitoring and ‘codes of conduct’ plastered on their websites to mask worker abuse in their supply chains. If Gap Inc. is truly ‘committed’ to Bangladesh worker safety as they state on their CSR page, then why haven’t they made a commitment to renovate one factory? Why did they violate their own codes of conduct by sourcing out to a factory in which their workers are forced to labor over 100 hours a week and some pregnant women are illegally fired and denied paid maternity leave? If U.S. retailer Children’s Place is “deeply saddened” by the Rana Plaza factory fire, then why have they not agreed to compensate the victims, many of whom are orphans who lost their parents in the fire? Shouldn’t a clothing line that caters to children feel a certain degree of responsibility to the children on the other side of the supply chain?

Retailer Children's Place refuses to pay compensation to the orphans left behind after the Rana Plaza fire (photo courtesy of orphansplace.com).

Retailer Children’s Place refuses to pay compensation to the orphans left behind after the Rana Plaza fire (photo courtesy of orphansplace.com).

These tragedies have ultimately implicated Western buyers as complicit in the apparel industry’s dark side. However, contrary to what Nicholas Kristof and others may believe, what labor rights organizations are advocating for is not an end to this relationship between brands and the countries from which they source. In fact, the hope here is that by deepening their engagement, these companies could be the best hope for transformative change in the industry. As Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity stressed in a recent interview with The Nation:

“If consumers stop buying, that is like a boycott and a boycott doesn’t help us. Instead, we want people to write letters to Walmart, talk to their communities and friends about what is happening, raise their voice and protest at the stores with their physical presence. We want US consumers to say, “‘We’re watching you and we demand that you pay attention.'”

This is an appeal for all the apparel companies sourcing out of Bangladesh to not just join the Accord but to contribute to the process of compensation for the victims and their families, so that the nearly four million women who make our clothes can get a sustainable living wage and be treated with dignity. Furthermore, there needs to be a sustained conversation from brands about how to change the industry that goes beyond just apologies and knee-jerk CSR responses. In an industry where labor costs represent one to three percent of the retail price, the validity of a living wage needs to be on the table. Since, adjusting for inflation, clothing is far less expensive now than it was fifty years ago, prices need to be adjusted. Most importantly, companies need to invest in a long-term commitment with their factories instead of leaving when something goes wrong. Brands like WalMart need to acknowledge when they have lost control over their supply chain instead of displacing blame onto others.

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(photo courtesy of justmeans.com).

Finally, the media and consumers need to make a continuous and consistent call for change in the industry, so that the victims of these tragedies are not dismissed as merely collateral damage in an ‘unfortunate accident,’ but as fellow human beings who live, breathe, have children and go to work. Seeing, after all, isn’t always believing. Sometime we have to believe, so that we can see.

Bangladeshis show photos of missing relatives after building collapse

We must never forget these faces. (photo courtesy of Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

Take Action:

Tweet! Want to take part in a twitter campaign to pressure retailers like Walmart, Children’s Place, The Gap, and Sears to sign the Accord and pay compensation to victims’ families? Here are some examples you can use:

Sign a petition! Demand that retailers end deathtraps and pay compensation to victims and their families. Here are the links for petitions to Gap, Wal-Mart, and The Children’s Place

Share: Both of these videos (here and here) interviewing survivors of the Rana Plaza fire are a must-watch.

Get involved! Check out United Students Against Sweatshops campaign to get universities to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. They have already had a few victories! Also check out the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights ForumJobs with Justice, United with Respect, and SumOfUs.

Get inspired: Read about Cambodian factory workers winning a settlement against Wal-Mart, how workers defied Wal-Mart this holiday season, and how university students successfully pressured Adidas to sign the Bangladesh Accord!

Want to learn how an apparel factory in the Dominican Republic is making a profit while paying its workers a living wage? Stay tuned for an upcoming post on this amazing company!

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Teen Sexual Violence: What Our Media and Culture Is Missing

The year 2013 has definitely brought about a shift in cultural consciousness. For the last year, our culture and media have finally started to critically examine rape culture and the prevalence of sexism, harassment and sexual assault worldwide. We were horrified by the tragic events in Steubenville and New Delhi, India. These assaults touched and angered so many of us and triggered an urgent call not just for dialogue and awareness, but also, for education and systemic change.  To that end, the Title IX movement, which is working to fight campus rape culture, launched earlier this year. Its mission is to work to “support all survivors, to change how colleges and universities handle sexual assault, and to change a culture where violence is normalized.” Survivors and allies have filed federal Title IX and Clery Act complaints at various universities in the U.S. for not providing the needed resources and for covering up rape when it happens.

For the last year I have wanted to add my voice to those who are covering these movements, but I knew I needed to learn more before I wrote about such an important issue in the public sphere. So I read and researched like crazy, and most importantly, listened to the hundreds of survivors who told me their stories. Even though I was thrilled by the increased visibility of this issue in the mainstream media, as I gained more knowledge I started to become frustrated with the vast amount of misinformation being propagated by our media and culture at large. A few weeks ago, I finally felt ready to co-author a piece on the media framing of teenage sexual violence for The Huffington Post. I am publishing the slightly longer version here, along with related articles and research that go beyond media framing to provide resources for parents, teens, and educators to end sexual violence. This will be the first of several pieces on sexual violence.

Last month, teenager Daisy Coleman bravely wrote a piece that detailed how another student from her hometown of Maryville, Missouri raped her and videotaped the assault. Her story echoes a familiar pattern of other high-profile cases involving teenagers, such as the Steubenville, Louisville, and Saratoga cases. While we find it encouraging that the mainstream media has been covering these cases, too much of the coverage has dismissed substantive research in favor of perpetuating various myths about young people and sexual assault.

We need journalists to re-frame the tone and questions that guide their reporting. The majority of the pieces covering teen sexual violence fall into superficial tropes that focus on the role of alcohol, the victim’s clothes, and sexting by “impulse-driven teens.” By fixating on sexting instead of what these teens are truly doing, which is “sexual assaultexting,” the media detracts from the fact that these boys are choosing to sexually assault another person and then shame them through social media.

Additionally, many journalists use language that deflects blame from the rapists and subtly shapes how readers understand teen sexual violence. Journalists tend to use passive phrasing, such as “she was raped,” which is problematic because it does not focus on the person who committed the crime. Too frequently, these cases are referred to as “scandals,” which only serves to sensationalize what happened while simultaneously obscuring that it was actually a crime. Often media coverage relies on terms that imply consent, such as “engaging in” and “sexual activity,” indicating a lack of knowledge about what constitutes rape. Ultimately, the way in which journalists cover teen sexual violence reflects a societal reluctance to label teenage boys as perpetrators.

These narratives support the “boys will be boys” myth that results in blaming the victim and the idea that teenage boys cannot be held truly accountable for their actions. Perhaps this explains why, in the coverage of the Steubenville rape case, reporters from multiple media outlets slanted their focus to be sympathetic to the rapists and blamed the victim. Who can forget CNN reporters expressing how “difficult” it was to hear the perpetrators convicted of rape crying in the courtroom, because their “promising lives” had fallen apart? But what about the life of the girl who they assaulted, who has to live with the rape for the rest of her life? This question is often absent from mainstream media coverage.

What we find so frustrating about this kind of reporting is that it ignores the fact that research has revealed the extent to which rape is a calculated and premeditated crime. Several studies have concluded that young people are able to understand refusals in many different contexts. Thus these cases are not accidents or miscommunications as the mainstream media often suggests: they are a result of boys not respecting a girl’s lack of consent. Understanding that perpetrators have specific attitudes, beliefs, worldviews, and cognitive frameworks that shape their decisions to override this consent and that need to be addressed by comprehensive socialization and education” is a different framework than what the media usually defaults to, which is that these young rapists are simply confused boys who rape by “accident.”

Additionally, while journalists often focus on the victim’s consumption of alcohol as causing sexual assault, research shows how perpetrators use alcohol as a tool to facilitate rape. Therefore, when media coverage focuses on the alcohol usage of victims, they are giving rapists the social license to operate because these men know that women who are drinking are seen as less credible when they report sexual assault.

Furthermore, research on college rapists mirrors studies of convicted sex offenders, which reveals that the majority of rapists are serial predators who often begin committing sexual violence as adolescents. Thus the cases we see in the news aren’t accidents or a ‘blip’ on a boy’s otherwise flawless record — they are more often than not the start of a long career as a serial rapist.

Given this research, it is distressing that articles that cover teen sexual violence pay little attention to how we fail to educate teenagers in ways that actually prevent sexual assault, such as comprehensive health education at school and in the home that focuses on teaching sexual respect and what constitutes sexual consent. Journalists need to work on reframing how we understand sexual violence prevention, because the research clearly shows that the only thing that causes sexual violence is someone choosing to assault another person. There needs to be an emphasis on preventative education which has been proven again and again to be a successful tool in helping to cut sexual assault rates amongst young people.

The tragedy of many of these cases goes far beyond the crime of sexual assault. It is also the dozens of young people who witnessed them and did nothing. We need to teach adolescents to act ethically in these situations. With bystander education, in which individuals are taught how to intervene when they see someone in trouble, these cases could have been prevented. Media coverage should stress the importance of bystander education as a successful way to empower young people to stop rape. Examples of noteworthy programs include the New York State Department of Health’s toolkit for bystander intervention and the University of New Hampshire’s Know Your Power campaign.

Most importantly, what needs to be clear in media coverage of teen sexual violence is that sexting, alcohol, and the Internet do not cause rape. The true issues at hand in these cases are disregard for other people’s bodily autonomy and lack of empathy for sexual assault survivors. Until those working in the media understand this, misconceptions regarding teen sexual assault will continue to be perpetuated to a wider audience.

When journalists ignore the research on sexual violence and toolkits about how to properly cover sexual assault and instead resort to superficial and sensationalist reporting, they are hurting efforts to end teen sexual violence. The media should not only do a better job when covering these stories, but also work to help educate and shape public opinion about what works to stop sexual assault. We owe it to young women like Daisy Coleman to accurately tell their stories and be allies in fighting sexual violence.

Resources for Teens:

Want to take action? Check out the I will End Sexual Violence and love is respect campaigns, as well as the Representation Project and SPARK movement to see how you can get involved in ending not just sexual violence, but the sexualization and objectification of young people in the media!

Resources for Parents:

The Conversation You Must Have With Your Sons

Hey Teenage Boys! Worried About Steubenville? Don’t Be.

Boys Will Be Boys, But Not Always Men

What To Tell The Next Generation

In Steubvenville Rape Case, a Lesson For Adults

Additional Resources for Educators:

The Effectiveness of Empathy-Based Rape Prevention and Bystander Training

Importance of Targeting Intervention at Teens

Five Creative Ways That Students Are Fighting Rape Culture

Why People Don’t Intervene When They Witness a Sexual Assault, and How We Can Change That

Please, No More Dating Guides

General Resources on Sexual Violence and Rape Culture:

Mapping a Global Pandemic: Sexual Violence Against Women

Rape Culture 101

This Is What Rape Culture Looks Like

How Slut Shaming Becomes Victim Blaming

The Five Ways Sexual Assault Is Really About Entitlement

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Why We Need Independent Media

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“The True Cost”: A Documentary on the Global Fashion Industry’s Impact

am-bioFor many consumers, the tragedy of the Rana factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people inspired a new consciousness about the ugly truth of the clothing industry that had rarely been exposed so powerfully. For director Andrew Morgan, the tragedy was an impetus to turn this consciousness into action and start production for a documentary on the human and environmental costs of the fashion industry, titled ‘The True Cost.’ The film incorporates the voices of ethical fashion experts such as Scott Nova of the Worker’s Rights Consortium, Safia Minney of the brand People Tree, and Bob Bland, CEO of Manufacture New York to help illuminate the complexity of this dilemma while paving the way for solutions towards a more sustainable future.

Morgan’s film is in pre-production and he has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund his film. You can check out his trailer below:

Nadia: So, would you mind elaborating on the meaning behind the film’s title, ‘The True Cost?’

Dhaka_Savar_Building_Collapse

We’ve got to get out of this place … the Rana Plaza factory fire, April 24, 2013.

Andrew: As consumers, we are used to making buying decisions based on cost, or the garment’s final price tag. And what this film intends to reveal is a human and environmental cost to bringing that product to market that aren’t reflected on that price tag, and that we just don’t see. And we are faced with an industry that has banked on the reality that most people aren’t going to think twice about what they are buying, because they think there is an invisible cost to their consumption. Some experts have referred to the environmental and labor violations within the global clothing industry as one of the best kept secrets in the world. So we really want to make these costs clear in our film as we examine how we got to this place, its global ramifications, and what needs to be done to articulate a different future.

Nadia: What inspired you to take on this subject?

Andrew: For me, seeing the picture in the New York Times of the two boys  walking in front of a wall of missing persons signs broke my heart. It really put a human and personal touch to what is a complex global issue. I immediately started doing research and talking with people in the industry from all over the world, and was just shocked by what I found. I mean, we are clearly in a place where the situation keeps on getting worse, not better. Three of the worst tragedies of the clothing industry were in the past year, and the environmental side is also horrifying.

But at the same time I’m fascinated by the idea of socially conscious business, and I’m excited by the prospect of that being the intended model. And the fact is, when we look at tragedies like Rana, the truth is that it really doesn’t have to be this way. There is no reason why we should be in this position where we are now. It wasn’t always this way and it doesn’t have to be this way—there is so much potential for good and for change that is truly attainable. And what has motivated me in this research is also speaking to so many of these pioneers who have laid the foundation for this film by doing truly amazing work for the past few decades.

Two boys walking by a missing persons sign (photo courtesy of The Industry London)

Two boys walking by a missing persons sign (photo courtesy of The Industry London)

Nadia: Ethical fashion—treating workers humanely and producing garments sustainably—seems to make sense. Why then do you think there has been some resistance to the idea of ethical fashion? 

Andrew: I think there has been this tendency to view this issue through this two-sided lens of ‘capitalism vs. people who care.’ In the United States especially people can get very defensive whenever you start to mess with what is considered free market capitalism. We’re very afraid of ‘socialism’ and extreme terms that we don’t even understand. We’re quick to put that label which we think threatens a system that ultimately provides profit. And I definitely think there have been moments in our history where people get complacent, when we think this is truly the best we can get.

But now we are in this current cultural moment where I truly believe people are realizing that we can actually evolve this system to move forward. I don’t think anyone is coming forward to say anything other than that we’ve built a system that can advance human progress substantially, but we’re not done. So let’s think of a third way that goes beyond this idea that you have to choose between ‘socialism’ or ‘exploitation.’  Now that we know more today that we did yesterday, let’s just evolve the system and grow. And in a world in which people are more connected than ever, let’s include more voices around the table. Even generationally, there’s a move towards, “I’m tired of fighting you. Let’s have a conversation and get things done.” I think that’s happening in a lot of ways now. There’s another group of people who are coming along that feel like capitalism could evolve and it could do even more good than it’s doing now, and less harm.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers' Rights Consortium.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers’ Rights Consortium, being interviewed for the film. (photo courtesy of Michael Ross)

Nadia: I love what you said about there being moments where we are complacent. Sometimes it seems like we have very short memories. For example, it frustrates me when I hear arguments against any kind of regulation, because it’s like we have forgotten that in the decades following the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 workers in New York City in 1911, governments imposed basic regulations that greatly improved health and safety conditions in the factories! 

Image_of_Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire_on_March_25_-_1911

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 led to better safety and health regulations in the industry…so regulation isn’t exactly a new thing!

Andrew: Exactly. And to add to that, throughout history, industry has always rebelled against regulation. And so government and activists always have to push the tide back for more regulation. In the United States we regulate everything. No one would acknowledge that but we really do. Just think about the food industry, or environmental pollution. We really do regulate everything, and historically industry has always rebelled. People forget that industry even rebelled against the minimum wage! So when it comes to this outsourcing to factories abroad, we need to have a system where these western brands that are making all this profit aren’t just self-regulating, but that there’s actual accountability and traceability. Because at the end of the day, there’s a profound violation of human rights that needs to be accounted for.

Nadia: In the opening of your trailer, you mention that you were told this “simple story” about where your clothes were made—which was that they were “made in faraway places by these ‘other people’ and these people needed the work.” Do you think part of our cultural apathy and ignorance has to do with the geographical distance between people who buy products and those who make them?

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Do we treat workers better when we see their face and we know who they are? A woman sews for Timbuk2 Bags in San Francisco

Andrew: The world has indeed moved to a more and more abstract a place. There’s actual psychology to this idea that if someone was in my village and made my shirt, I would never force them to endure what many of these workers in countries like Bangladesh are going through.  But because we live in a world now where we’re not in touch with anything that we eat or wear, it makes us capable of outsourcing not only the product but the consequences of making that product in an irresponsible way.

Nadia: Could you describe a bit more your aesthetic as a filmmaker and how you hope your film will take these abstract problems and turn them into tangible solutions for your viewers? What can film do that other mediums can not in educating people about this issue?

I am most interested in narrative and documentary story telling, and I really love to tell stories that are true and honest, that give hope for a better tomorrow. I often look for issues that have been decades in the work, where the groundwork and models have been tested. And I think with ethical fashion, there’s a potential here to break this out of the little corner that it’s been in, and to bring it to a wider audience.

Part of the problem has been in how we are telling a story, and I think film can really change that. When people are being entertained, they lower their guard, and there’s this opportunity to make them aware of really new and disruptive ideas. I’m after those moments. And in just an hour and a half, I have this chance to make a change. It means I need to pick out the key moments that can create a reaction in both their head and heart. I want to make these ideas accessible to the ordinary person without dumbing anything down, and I really want the place that we’re in right now to appear ridiculous. Because at the moral center, it is ridiculous. But at the same time, I don’t believe in motivating people through shame and guilt. I want to look at the world through a lens of hope. People don’t like being talked down to or judged. It’s better to say, “let’s imagine this better world we could live in today.”

What can film do that other mediums can't?

What can film do that other mediums can not? (photo courtesy of Michael Ross)

Nadia: In your trailer you mentioned how stories often rely on a strong protagonist and antagonist, but in this story you are telling it will be difficult to point out any one person or institution that is solely responsible. Will you be creating a new kind of story-telling with this film?

Andrew: Our approach is to include many points of view in the film creating a collage of ideas and implications. For example living life in the shoes of a garment worker in Bangladesh, a sourcing manager for H&M, a factory auditor in China or a village in India effected by improper dumping from leather tanneries. Rather then pinning one idea against each other and watching them fight it out, we are combining ideas into solution sets that are real and tangible. As I stated in the Kickstarter page, we believe that true change will only be sustained through the creation of a synergistic approach, one that involves the adaptation of policy, the improvement of industry standards and a shift in consumer consciousness. It sounds complicated but the result will be a film that moves quickly, and flows easily making the world feel as small as it truly is. Ultimately I want to acknowledge this complexity, while giving voice to a moral clarity.

What is it like to be in this woman's shoes?

What is it like to be in this Bangladeshi’s garment worker’s shoes? (photo courtesy of Inhabitat).

Nadia: What message do you hope your viewers will walk away with after watching the film?

Andrew: I want to articulate a future where people in the global supply chain are more closely connected, and where factory jobs empower people through  good work rather than exploiting them. A future where people are more aware about the environmental implications, and buy fewer items that last longer. I would love for viewers to leave my film inspired to start conversations about what the cost of their consumption is, and to be empowered to help change it. And my hope is that by starting these conversations, eventually we will come to a place where ‘ethical fashion’ isn’t a niche, but the new normal.

Can we get to a place where everyone is this happy sewing? (photo courtesy of Believe you Can).

Can we get to a place where everyone is this happy sewing? (photo courtesy of Believe you Can).

There’s just a few more days to raise funds so that this film can be made! Donate here (even a dollar helps, and you get cool gifts if you contribute a little more) and share with friends! Let’s do this!!

Share on Facebook for a chance to win jewelry from the fair trade organization Global Girlfriend! (cause I’m all about supporting the girlfriends!) You can check out the giveaway here.

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Filed under Critical Fashion

The Chocolate Industry Exposed: Child Labor, Trafficking and Fair Trade Mislabeling

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies behind the wrapper?

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies beneath the wrapper?

With Valentine’s Day behind us and Easter just a few weeks away, I thought there was no better time to write a post on the chocolate industry than now, when ‘chocolate season’ seems to be in full bloom. Even though it may seem that I am taking somewhat of a detour from my current series on fashion by writing about all things cocoa, the fact is, the chocolate and textile industries share much in common. Both produce things that give people around the world pleasure, and yet that pleasure often comes at a cost. My previous posts on fashion, conflict minerals and technology have attempted to reveal the obstacles in maintaining transparency across our global supply chains, and chocolate is no exception here. If glamor is a facade that often hides the exploitation behind the fashion industry, then the sweetness of chocolate found within the brightly foiled wrappers can be an easy distraction from the gritty, sad reality of how that chocolate is made. The ultimate irony is that an industry that especially caters to children’s Willy Wonka fantasies too often relies on the trafficking of children to make it.

Sigh. There is always a buzzkill. But don’t worry gfs, we’re going to talk about what’s wrong with the cocoa industry, and then we will discuss actions we can take to make it better.

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

Here are the hard facts. Two million cocoa farms across West Africa produce around 73 percent of the world’s four million tons of cocoa. Exports from the Cote d’Ivoire account for 10 percent of its GDP, bringing in $2.3 billion to the region annually. This lucrative business relies on more than 1.8 million children, most of whom work without pay and in hazardous conditions, which include exposure to harmful pesticides and forced use of machetes in their work. Between 200,000 and 800,000 children under the age of 18 are working under the ‘worst forms of child labor,’ and it is estimated that over 10,000 are trafficked annually in West Africa alone.

The child labor situation in the cocoa industry is tragic, and yet too little has been done to institute the needed regulations to ensure that this exploitation does not occur. In 2001, a few members of U.S. Congress proposed a federal system to certify and label chocolate products as slave free: right on the wrapper, next to the calories and ingredient list where it sometimes says “may contain peanuts,” it would read “may contain child labor.” This proposal—the Harkin-Engel Accord—passed the House of Representatives, but lost by a razor-thin margin in the Senate when chocolate manufacturing giants like Hershey, Mars, Nestle and agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland threw their money into a massive lobbying effort.

Thanks to the efforts of Senator Harkin and many others committed to see a change, a ‘voluntary protocol’ was nonetheless negotiated. That meant cocoa companies could try and stop child labor, if they wanted to. It set goals for ending abusive and forced child labor on cocoa farms by 2005. These terms have still not been implemented, due to a lack of certification standards, the Ivorian Civil War in which ‘blood chocolate,’ along with conflict minerals, was making money for the militants, and a lack of political will among cocoa corporations. I mean, they didn’t see fit to end child labor before—why was a law with no teeth going to change their behavior now? Every few years, the law gets reviewed, the lobby pushes back, and a new deadline for implementation is set. Meanwhile, kids are enslaved in the cocoa fields. Farmers dream of making as much as $1 a day—a dream as far off as tasting a chocolate bar most never have, since it’s too expensive. At the same time, kids in the West buy cheap chocolate, and dollars pile into coffers of the same giant companies that continue to bat down this legislation.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol - a commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com)

The Harkin-Engel Protocol addressed again, in 2010. A commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com).

What do we have to show for these efforts, a decade later? Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano wanted to find out, and launched an undercover investigation into the cocoa industry, which they revealed in their startling, award-winning documentary, The Dark Side of Chocolate. The film reveals that, contrary to the chocolate industry’s claims, child trafficking is still very much central to the production of cocoa in Western Africa, especially the Ivory Coast. Many of these children come from the poorest families in the region, and are tricked into thinking they will be paid for their work so that they can help support their families. Children as young as eight years old travel miles from countries like Burkina Faso or Mali, and are forced to labor in hazardous conditions from sunrise to sunset and live in small shacks in the plantations.

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein being a child laborer? Is it corporations, suppliers, consumers or governments?

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein working on a cocoa farm? Is it corporations, farmers, suppliers, consumers or governments? Or is everyone to blame? (photo courtesy of Jessica Dimmock for CNNMoney).

But who is to blame here exactly? Much like the fashion industry, the transnational nature of the cocoa industry makes it difficult to ‘pin the blame’ on any particular person, country, or institution. The chocolate companies point fingers at farmers, who in turn have argued that what they’re paid for cocoa is too little for them to pay adult wages—so they hire cheap children instead—or worse. The Ivorian government has similarly accused chocolate companies of not paying farmers enough for their produce since farmers must sell their beans to middlemen at dramatically low prices, even though the prices for cocoa in the commodities market have risen. In response, chocolate companies have countered that it is too complex to track where their cocoa beans come from, especially since global commodities exchanges might mix Ivorian cocoa with other cocoa. The suppliers in turn argue that they can’t be held responsible because they don’t control the farms. Meanwhile, consumers claim that it is difficult to know where their chocolate was produced given the distance between consumers and producers.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

So what can be done? Mistrati recently gave an interview on the issues of transparency revealed in The Dark Side of Chocolate, and he believes that if major manufacturers who are located in the Ivory Coast are truly concerned about where their cocoa comes from, then they should buy the fields and control the cocoa directly. He also doesn’t think companies are spending enough money on projects fighting child slavery in Africa relative to the revenue they make. For example, take Hershey, which owns a whopping 42 percent of the U.S. market for cocoa, making it the country’s largest purchaser of West African chocolate. Although the company is investing in a $4 million, five year program that helps to train Western African farmers on good farming and labor practices, scorecards recently released by Not for Profit Uniting Church Across Australia and the International Labor Rights Forum revealed Hershey is lagging far behind retailers like Mars and Nestle in eliminating child labor in its supply chain. Hershey has since announced its plan to produce 100 percent certified cocoa for all of its products by 2020, which, if met, could have a profound effect on an industry in which only five percent of its cocoa volume is certified.

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of fairtradecampus.org).

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of United Students for Fair Trade).

Still, as I have written before, there is always a potential that companies will resort to greenwashing when they are not legally bound to follow through with their promises, and Hershey thus far has been somewhat vague on what their certification plan would entail. In fact, Whole Foods Markets Inc. just recently pulled Hershey’s ‘artisan’ chocolate brands Scharffen Berger and Dagoba off the shelves after activists in International Labor Rights Forum, Green America, and the Organic Consumers Association raised concerns about the company’s lack of transparency in their social accountability programs. One of Hershey’s largest shareholders has filed a suit against the company for its alleged use of child labor. The ‘Raise the Bar Hershey‘ campaign, which involves elementary school children as its core base, aims to pressure the company to ethically source 100% of its cocoa by its proposed deadline of 2020. Many children have given up eating chocolate from Hershey’s until the brand makes the full switch. One can only hope that a company built by Quakers on a foundation of educating disadvantaged children would once again become an industry leader.

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school?

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school? (photo courtesy of IRLF).

The Hershey example outlined above clearly demonstrates why companies must operationalize according to a ‘logic of distance’ between producer and consumer as a way to maximize their profits. This logic assumes that the further removed a consumer is from the conditions under which a producer labors, the less likely they will be to have awareness and ultimately, motivation to protest. This is perhaps why Mistrati believes that change in cocoa production methods will be more likely to happen when consumers demand change and pressure chocolate manufactures to increase their purchases of Fair Trade cocoa. The standards for the Fair Trade certification mark prohibit child labor according to the ILO conventions, and qualified auditors are supposed to routinely check producer organizations to ensure that these standards are being rigorously met. By working to strengthen the position of farmers and workers in international supply chains so that they do not have to rely on child labor, a convincing argument can be made for the elimination of child trafficking by creating a greater demand for Fair Trade chocolate. And when children are not forced to work the argument is that they will have greater opportunities to go to school, which is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty that fuels child trafficking in the first place.

However, sometimes transparency in labeling for even movements we trust can be suspect. While Fair Trade advocates have always touted transparency throughout the Fair Trade supply chain as central to its mission, there is a growing concern that as more businesses incorporate the Fair Trade label into their products in an effort to gain new consumers, the high bar for accountability might become filtered. The Fair World Project decided to go to various stores to investigate how transparent various chocolate brands were about their labeling. They were shocked to find out that two “privately labeled chocolate bars,” one of which was from Trader Joe’s and the other from Whole Foods, claimed to be Fair Trade when in fact, only a few of their ingredients were certified Fair Trade. So if Whole Foods’ brand chocolate bar has fair trade cocoa butter, how does the consumer know that the sugar and vanilla included in the bar was not made with exploited labor? Trader Joe’s is even more secretive about its Fair Trade ingredients, with none being identified in their ingredient list (this lack of transparency on sourcing and labor practices is not just limited to chocolate at the cheap retailer, as this article points out).

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe's bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren't made with exploitative labor?

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe’s bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren’t made with exploitative labor when the labeling isn’t transparent?

This is egregious not just because it allows these companies to sell a Fair Trade product without being fully transparent about their supply chains, but also because these private brands are cheaper than true Fair Trade companies like Alter Eco, Divine, and Equal Exchange, all of which invest in fair prices and premiums to ensure that more money is going directly to cooperatives controlled by farmers. Their bars clearly indicate which ingredients are Fair Trade, and furthermore, they include relevant information and pictures about the co-ops they work with in the inserts of their packaging and on their websites. Still, consumers have become so conditioned to trust the label, they might buy a cheaper product that has fewer Fair Trade ingredients (and yes, I was one of those consumers. I’m not exactly a fan of being lied to, so hence. this. post.).

What is so strange is that the Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology (IMO), a certifier for companies using the ‘Fair for Life’ label, requires that a product be 80% fair trade by weight in order to display the Fair for Life logo on the front. Furthermore, neither of these bars indicates the audited company responsible for manufacturing the bar, a key component of IMO’s Fair for Life program. So, what explains these misleading labels?

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Even more difficult to explain is the recent lapse in Fair Trade workplace standards that was revealed a few weeks ago when the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) released a report titled Aiding and Abetting. The report documents how certifier IMO neglected to uphold its commitment to international labor standards promoted by its Fair for Life label when it failed to intervene on behalf of workers at Theo Chocolate who were attempting to organize at their North American factory. In fact, IMO then proceeded to initiate new labor standards that included recommendations for employer-hired consultants who discourage union organizing to be included in a list provided to its workers. While one can argue that this violation was a failure to uphold their Northern workplace standards, not necessarily their ‘Fair Trade’ standards, we should still question, if the certification system wasn’t working in North America, whether it would work for producers in the Global south.

The question is then, how do we make the system financially accountable to the people it is supposed to help, namely both workers and consumers? According to Rachel Taber, who worked at Theo Chocolate for three and a half years as a tour guide, one of the central problems lies with the fact that auditors are being paid by the management of companies like Theo, thus setting up a potential conflict of interest. This is why the ILRF is recommending that complaints by workers be reviewed not by company-associated auditors, but by an independent “International Fair Trade Board of Appeal.” As Judy Gearhart, Executive director of ILRF noted in an interview with me:

“We definitely need more accountability and transparency in our system. And we need to acknowledge that not all of these systems are treated equally. Fair Trade International, which is based in Europe, can partly attribute its more rigorous Fair Trade standards to more robust support by the labor movement there. And that makes a big difference. While we feel that Fair Trade has the right social justice commitments, we need to work harder to ensure that farmers have a strong share in these companies.”

Yes. Because ultimately, farmers and producers, not labels, are at the heart of this movement. There are some wonderful company leaders who are indeed staying true to their Fair Trade ethics, in that they are constantly striving for transparency and are committed to giving their workers a platform to voice their concerns. They’re reaping economic benefit on a more equitable level and taking unique approaches to do it.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange, at their elementary school.

Take for example, Equal Exchange, the oldest Fair Trade coffee company in the United States. Of the nine seats on their board, six are reserved for non-management worker-owners, and all nine are nominated and elected by the workers themselves. They share worker testimonials on their online site, and as Rocio Motato of the Columbian cooperative ASPROCAFE put it, “We have not only a commercial relationship through the coffee, but more importantly, a very human relationship.” Their commitment to environmental sustainability and organic food practices is evident in the quality of their products—the chocolate bars sourced from purely made ingredients are some of my favorites in the business (and I know my chocolate!).

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Farmers in Madagascar gather their beans after sun-drying. Madecasse works with cooperatives to keep the profit in the region so that farmers do not have to rely on cheap child labor (photo courtesy of madecasse.com).

There are other notable models that should also be highlighted. Divine is a Fair Trade company in which farmers own 45% and share the profits, and there is a special focus on women leadership. Alter Eco Foods works with small-scale cooperatives in countries that include Bolivia, Peru, and Thailand, and is an interesting company because its environmental commitments include organic agriculture training for farmers and also partnering many of their cooperatives with reforestation projects. And then there are other chocolate producers that are not certified Fair Trade, but are making quality chocolate that benefits local communities. For example, the Chuao cooperative in Venezuela sells to high-end chocolatiers, and the farmers organize and distribute money fairly among themselves and make really amazing chocolate that is culturally appropriate to their land-based indigenous background. The Granada Chocolate company makes organic chocolate in Granada using their own cocoa beans, while Madecasse, a chocolate company sourced and manufactured from bean to bar in Madagascar, keeps the profits local.

The certified Fair Trade and non-certified Fair Trade companies highlighted above are all excellent examples of models that work, and provide a compelling rationale for why consumers need to start looking beyond the label to truly transform the system, because the Fair Trade seal, which traditionally used to symbolize rigorous monitoring and transparent labeling, is in danger of being diluted and hijacked. Furthermore, we need to start thinking more deeply about whether we should rely solely on a certification to bridge the gap between producers and consumers. While the Payson Center proposal of an oversight committee on certifiers is a good, easy starting point for where we are now, to create a more accountable workplace, Rachel Taber believes that we can go even further to institute a real system of “checks and balances.” As she told me:

You need a union, a real functioning democratic co-op, a way that workers themselves can communicate directly with consumers in a way that their own words will be heard. I mean really, skyping with interpreters would probably be much cheaper than paying out of country auditors.”

On a related note, NGO-sponsored ‘worker tours’ which include a small panel of workers sharing their personal narratives of laboring within global commodity chains are proving to be a powerful way for producers and activists to build coalitions with schools, congregations and most urgently, unions.

Two Cacao farmers from the cooperative CONACADO speak on tour:

Finally, we need to encourage civic engagements and direct action of consumers and workers together to hold abusive companies responsible and reward companies that have implemented worker and consumer demands on them and are actually following through on their commitments. Organizations like the United Students against Sweatshops (USAS), Coalition of Immokale Workers (CIW), and even the Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign have given corporations a taste of the power of consumers rising against them.  For example, after learning that Nike had failed to pay $1.54 million in severance pay to over 1,800 workers in Honduras, USAS led several University boycotts of the brand which led to Nike ultimately agreeing to pay the workers the severance that was owed to them. It is clear that the corporate accountability model is capable of working, in that costing companies money gets things done. You might be surprised just how much your voice can make a difference.

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

Here is the deal. Child trafficking in the cocoa industry is very real, and it is tragic. If we are going to seriously address it, then we need to not just resort to knee-jerk responses such as ‘buy Fair Trade chocolate’ if we don’t even know what that means. Though I want to be clear here, my issue isn’t with the person who buys an Equal Exchange bar over a Hershey bar knowing that the former supports democratic co-ops while the latter is potentially trafficking children to supply their cocoa. We do need to demand more ethically sourced chocolate, and supporting disenfranchised farming communities is a very powerful choice.

Where we get into a problem is when we buy products because we trust the label and we don’t realize that the label might be diluted. Or when we think of ourselves only as consumers and not also as citizens who have the power to organize for system-wide changes, such as the Harkin-Engel accord, or anti-corporate campaigns against cases of abuse. We need to get to know the companies behind the labels to see which ones best represent our values of social justice and transparency, and take cues from organizations we respect, such as the Fair World Project, or a faith-based organization which is active in Fair Trade issues, or any of the ones mentioned above. In the words of Public Enemy, ‘Don’t believe the hype.” In order to better direct the energy of the labor rights movement, we need to think critically, ask questions, and ultimately, refuse to lower the bar for justice.

Update: In late March, Hershey announced that it would commit to 100% Fair Trade cocoa by 2020, and that it would source through certifiers UTZ, Fair Trade USA, and Rainforest Alliance. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, we need to keep in mind that these three certifiers are known for being less rigorous than other Fair Trade certifiers. The Fair World Project’s list of credible Fair Trade certification programs does not include any of these certifiers. Here are links to criticisms of Fair Trade USARainforest Alliance and UTZ. This demonstrates again, the importance of sustained conversation, and thinking beyond the label!

In late 2012, IMO wrote this letter to the Fair World Project promising that they would remove the Fair for Life logo on the front of their label until they had ensured that they had corrected the Fair Trade ingredients percentage in their chocolate. The Fair World Project confirmed that as of 2014, the private labels are sourcing fair trade sugar.

Trader Joe’s has pulled the Fair for Life logo from their fair trade chocolate, but they are still not indicating who it is that is certifying their chocolate as fair trade, if anyone.

Fair Trade USA has repeatedly been criticized for its labeling policy that lacks transparency and its low percentage of required fair trade ingredients. They have made some changes, such as agreeing to mandate a percentage disclosure and to not exempt milk from calculations of fair trade ingredients. But they are still excluding sugar and vanilla as mandatory in products labeled ‘fair trade.’

Take Action:
  • Want to email companies like Hershey and Nestle, as well as the World Cocoa Foundation, pressuring them to abide by Harkin-Engel? Check out this page where you can also message Tom Harkin and Eliot Engel!
  • Get involved in the Hershey, Raise the Bar! Campaign, where you can find petitions and some great resources!
  • Check out 10 Campaign’s excellent breakdown of the main issues around child labor in the chocolate industry, and be sure to download their comprehensive but clear “Campaign Briefing Document.”
  • Sign this petition initiated by the Food Empowerment Project asking Clif Bar to disclose where they get their cocoa beans.
  • The Global Cocoa Project has some great resources for increasing awareness about the realities behind the cocoa industry.
  • Looking for more ideas on how to get young people involved? Or how you can raise awareness by hosting your own ‘chocolate party?’ Stop the Traffick can hook you up!
  • How about hosting a screening of ‘A Dark Side of Chocolate’ as a way to spread awareness among your peers and larger community? You can purchase it on ILRF’s website. And check out their ‘Take Action’ page.
  • Concerned about Theo’s recent actions against its workers, and IMO’s failure to uphold Fair Trade standards? Want to hold accountable and improve the parties involved? Sign this petition demanding that IMO’s Fair for Life certification label adopt reforms to protect workers.
  • Share this video testimonial of a former Theo worker.
  • Share this amazing TEDx talk by ChocoSol founder Michael Sacco, where he discusses the horizontal trade model that emphasizes community supported agriculture, diversity of production, and intercultural relationships. Watch the ChocoSol philosophy here.
  • Share this video about chocolate company TCHO‘s work in Costa Rica.
  • Screen Nothing Like Chocolate, a documentary by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, which focuses on how Mott Green of the Grenada Chocolate Company and independent cocoa farmer Nelice Stewart produce chocolate sustainably and ethically. You can watch the trailer here.

Good Chocolate List:

  • You should take these recommendations with a grain of salt given some of the points made in this post, but this is a good basic list of which chocolate companies source from areas in West Africa where child slavery is the most pervasive, as well as ethical and sustainable alternatives.
Additional Resources:
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