Tag Archives: social justice

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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ABAN: Empowering Girls in Ghana, One Fabric at a Time

ABAN co-founder Callie Brauel, bottom right, gathers with a group of young Ghanaians benefiting from their own work throug ABAN. At top left is Emmanuel Quarmyne, ABAN's Ghana Programs Director, beside UNC graduate Carly Brantmeyer.

ABAN co-founder Callie Brauel, bottom right, gathers with a group of young Ghanaians benefiting from their own work through ABAN. At top left is Emmanuel Quarmyne, ABAN’s Ghana Programs Director, beside UNC graduate Carly Brantmeyer.

So, I thought I would start this week off on a bit of a lighter note than the one I left you with on Friday (sorry girlfriends, but I have to keep it real, you know?). Before turning to the final installment of my interview with Eco Fashion pioneer Marci Zaroff, I wanted to highlight a truly inspiring non-profit called ABAN (A Ban Against Neglect), co-founded by Callie Brauel and Rebecca Brandt while studying at the University of Ghana in the capital city of Accra in 2008.  Upon arriving for their semester abroad, the two students were confronted by the huge problem of environmental waste left behind by the plastic bags of pure water sold to Ghanians, in the amount of forty tons a day. As their semester progressed, they eventually discovered another haunting problem: the 30,000 street girls from rural areas of the country who had left their families in the hope of finding work in the capital, only to be left homeless in the streets. Although they volunteered at a local agency that helped some of these girls, it was only when they developed a mock nonprofit company for recycled products for a class, that the idea for ABAN began to form. Why not give these girls much needed job skills and economic independence by having them take the plastic waste from the water bags and ‘upcycle’ them into cute bags and purses? Teaming up with Ghanian University student Emmanuel Quarmyne, who is currently ABAN’s Ghana Director, the three students were able to get a few sewing machines donated by non-profits, and partnered with Street Girls Aid, a Ghanian NGO that aids a small group of mothers and girls that are living off of the street. In 2010, after winning the Carolina Challenge, the team launched their own job skills and vocational training non-profit with ten young mothers aged 15-20 coming off the streets of Accra. Now, two years later, ABAN has not only graduated their first class of girls, but recycles over ten thousand plastic bags a month!

OK, stop. Building cross-cultural coalitions to empower young girls? Through the craft of sewing? And upcycling waste while doing it? ‘Listen Girlfriends’ DIES.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Callie Brauel, who currently resides in Chapel Hill, the other day over coffee, and she shared with me some of the challenges ABAN initially faced, how the organization works, and how they plan to move forward.

Nadia: So ABAN’s mission seems to be really holistic. In addition to the health care, living wages, daycare, and job employment the girls receive, there is also a staff of ten people, including a  house mother and psychologist on board. Was it always this way?

Callie: No, it wasn’t. When ABAN first started, we hired a seamstress and we thought it was enough to provide our class of ten girls with a job from nine to five every day. It became very clear however, that these girls had gone through so much trauma, and that unlike many Ghanians, who have a strong social and familial network, they really lacked that support.  They had, in some way or another, been neglected. And that obviously leaves scars, and it was clear that they needed emotional support as well, especially since most of them, even though they were all under the age of 20, had children. Once we realized this, we knew that we had to expand our organization’s mission and team.

So in May of 2011, Rebecca and I came back to the United States, and we went on a house tour through different parts of the U.S., and we raised $30,000 in two weeks. And with that money, we decided to get the girls out of Accra, and rent our own facility in Aburi, which is just east of the capital.

Nadia: So how does the program work now? What is a day like at ABAN?

Fun while sewing.

Fun while sewing.

Callie: Well, in the morning the girls work on their products, and in the afternoon, they take Math, English, Business Education, Leadership and Empowerment courses. We really try to empower the girls as much as possible, so they take turns cooking as well. Keep in mind that most of the girls come into our program without having had much or any formal education, so vocational training is key to their success. Often the skills they learn at ABAN will prove useful in future careers or side businesses. Since the girls are paid for their work they also get the added benefits of learning to hold a job and budget their money before they graduate from ABAN, all of which are necessary skills to provide for themselves and their children.

Nadia: You describe ABAN as a ‘fabric of change.’ So how do the girls make their products?

batik dying

Two students practice the art of batik dying.

Callie: What is awesome about the ABAN products is that each one is a piece of art. There is so much involvement in every step of the process, making each handmade product unique to the girl who made it. The first step involves the collection of bags. We network with local schools in the area to collect bags and promote environmental education in doing so. After collection, the bags are hand washed, sanitized and laid in the sun to dry.

We’re also working on producing a batik fabric, which is a multi-toned fabric. To make this, the girls take a piece of white fabric, and then use a wooden stamp to dip it into wax. You dye it in the first color, which is a lighter color, and then repeat the process with a darker color. That gives you the three-toned look of the fabric. And then water is used to remove the wax. And the dye we receive differs so much in color, because it is dependent on the weather and climate. So a red we get one day might be completely different from the red we receive the next. Which makes the process all the more exciting and a true learning process! Currently, the girls are learning how to make the batik fabrics,  and we’re also supporting local artisans to meet our demand. The products are finished with a final detail- a key chain made from recycled glass! We had college students come over this summer and work with a local artisan to make us a bead center on site.

Nadia: So where do you sell your products?

Desmund, Denicia’s son, sits with an ABAN travel case. One case recycles 24 plastic sachets, and provides life and job-skills training for a month for an ABAN girl.

Callie: We have an online store, and the list of retailers who sell our products are listed on there as well. Currently, 40% of our revenues come from sales, and 60% from grants and donations. We really like the idea of becoming self-sufficient through sales and having 80-90% of our revenue coming from sales, eventually.

Nadia: Are you looking to expand in the future?

Callie: Yes! We recently bought six acres of land, and in the next one to two years we will expand our program to thirty girls. Our hope is that within the next five years, we can start an actual ABAN campus for seventy to eighty girls! We are also have a sister organization called ACE (ABAN Community Employment) with ten seamstresses employed at fair wages and with key benefits who further support our organization as demand grows it the US. This extra revenue will help us expand our mission on the ground to support more girls in the ABAN school.

Nadia: So I have to ask, why is ABAN so invested in girls?

Callie: Well, for two reasons. Living in Accra, you see how vulnerable the girls are, because they are the ones who are forced to migrate to the capital to find work for their families. Secondly, there is a mounting amount of research supporting what is being labeled as The Girl Effect, that investing in a girl’s education doesn’t just change that girl’s life, it changes her family’s life as well, and betters the community. And we are definitely seeing that with the young women who have children. When their lives are improved, economically and emotionally, they can provide a better life for their children.

first graduation

First graduation!

Nadia: Do you have any success stories you would like to share?

Callie: Well, there is Asimaw, who loves to sew and is currently working as an apprentice. She is dreaming of starting her own business and employing and educating many other women like herself. Oh and I have to tell you about Denicia! She’s another girl who graduated from her program and received a scholarship at a private boarding school just outside the capital in Ghana. We have recycling initiatives with several schools that send us their plastic waste, and for several months we tried to get a recycling initiative started at her school, but it never transpired. Well one day, she saw all of these bags and bags of plastic piled outside of the school that were going to be dumped in a landfill. When they started to burn all of these bags, releasing all of these chemicals into the air, Denicia sprinted across the field and put a stop to it. And now the whole school has a recycling initiative, and they send all of their plastic bags to us. She is determined to be a top military officer in Ghana and with her determination, I know she is bound to get there.

Nadia: So how can people get involved and help?

Callie: There are so many ways! We have some great educational resources for teachers who want to introduce the culture of Ghana to their students, such as the craft of bead making, music, and dance. We also have a ‘Life Change’ kit where we send students a recycled water sachet, a piece of hemp, and beads to decorate with. It is a wonderful way to empower students with the idea that they indeed, can make a change.

You can also check out our website and donate online. We have a detailed explanation of where the money goes and how it changes a girl’s life. Or you can throw an ABAN party to raise awareness with your peers. We have all of the resources online to make it really easy!

Looking for other ways to connect with ABAN? Check them out on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Want to share a short video on what ABAN is all about? Click here.

Interested in selling ABAN products at a retail location? Click here for a promotional video of all of their products!

Here’s a ten-minute documentary on the girls of ABAN:

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Ethical Fashion: Introduction to an Ongoing Series

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The Human Impact of the Textile Industry: Pesticide Poisoning, Farmer Suicides, and how Organic and Fair Trade Can Help

In my last post, Marci Zaroff shared with us her knowledge about the toxic environmental impact of the textile industry, and today, we turn to the devastating human impact. Up to 77 million cotton workers suffer poisoning from pesticides each year, and in India, 300,000 cotton farmers have committed suicide—almost 26 a day—to escape debt.

Nadia: So, could you expand a bit more on what is being referred to as a ‘pesticide treadmill?’

Marci: So here are the hard facts. Just as germs infest on people who are weaker, when plants are sprayed with chemicals, they also get weaker. And then the soil weakens, and the eco-system isn’t building a healthy plant. So this ultimately results in less yield for the farmer.

And then, these bugs build resistance to these pesticides, and the farmers have to buy stronger and more expensive pesticides, which they can’t afford, so they have to leverage their farms to the banks. Then, as the cycle perpetuates and continues, the soil gets depleted & destroyed, the bugs get out of control, and the farmers can no longer sustain their livelihoods. Stuck in tremendous debt, many farmers are committing suicide with the very pesticides that they used on their plants. Every half an hour in India, a farmer is committing suicide. There’s an upcoming documentary called Dirty White Gold that will reveal what is now being referred to as this ‘pesticide treadmill.’

Nadia: I just read that genetically modified crops are decreasing pesticide use for farmers, is this true?

Photo courtesy of cottondon.org

Photo courtesy of cottondon.org

Marci: While there may be artificial decrease in the pesticides use in the short-term, in the long term we’re already seeing an increase in pesticide use again, because of genetic resistance and falling crop yields. Over 90% of the world’s cotton is now genetically modified (GMO), which has resulted in a monopoly for Monsanto, giving them the power to dramatically raise the prices on GMO cotton seed and the additional inputs and pesticides, which they also provide. At the mercy of these altered and chemical inputs, the GMO paradigm is not sustainable financially for farmers, and further, we are just beginning to learn of the harmful ramifications of GMO seeds in relation to human health. In addition, monocropping with GMO seeds is not only depleting the soil and its ecosystems, but risking the very survival of thousands of natural cotton varieties as well.

Nadia: And I just read that in the last year, the costs of cotton cultivation has jumped due to the rising costs of these pesticides, so it’s not as profitable as it used to be? And supposedly there have been more suicides among the farmers that have used these GM crops …

Marci: YES, these are sad facts, as stated prior.

Nadia: So you told us yesterday how organic cotton helps the earth, how does it help farmers?

Photo courtesy of cottonedon.org

Photo courtesy of cottonedon.org

Marci: Well first of all, there’s a risk with using GMO seeds. We are continuing to learn of the consequences of GMO, across many agricultural crops (food & fiber), which is why there is a huge movement towards GMO labeling in the USA. We are one of the only developed countries in the world that doesn’t require GMO labeling! On the contrary, since organic farming prohibits the use of any GMO seeds, organic farmers are allowed to work with their environment and economic situation in a sustainable way, while building and protecting their soil and farms. They also can diversify their crops, which allows them to diversify their income. If they have more than one crop to rely on, then it helps protect them in case there is a crop failure, market demand, etc. And of course, they don’t have to breathe in toxic pesticides that harm more than 77 million cotton farmers a year. It is devastating to see conventional cotton farmers walking thru their fields with pesticide tanks on their backs, not realizing that they are spraying poisons in their own faces. And even worse, often in the faces of their babies, who they are carrying in slings while walking their farms. They are often lured in by the seed and chemical companies. It is a tragic human situation that we can help to change by supporting the growth and market for organic cotton.

Nadia: I know you were instrumental in helping Fair Trade USA develop the first USA Fair Trade certification of textiles and will be spearheading their national launch in 2013. (Fair Trade farmers receive a minimum price for their product, covering the cost of production, with a Fair Trade premium paid in addition for investments in social, environmental or economic development projects). Could you explain a) what drives your passion for Fair Trade, and b) How it connects with your environmental/organic concerns and advocacy?

Marci: I am passionate about building community and connecting humanity.  I believe it is extremely important to be in touch with the people who grow, sew and receive our products.

Nathuram Pal, a 45-year-old farmer of Nibhghana village in Garautha tehsil of Bundelkhand region, committed suicide by hanging himself with a ‘Babool’ tree on the night of 18th June. He was under pressure to pay back the loan of Rs 12,000 taken from the coopertive bank and another Rs 40,000 taken from the local people.

Nathuram Pal, a 45-year-old farmer of Bundelkhand region, committed suicide when he couldn’t pay the loan of Rs 12,000 taken from the coopertive bank and another Rs 40,000 taken from the local people (Full article here).

When you look at the triple bottom business model, which is ‘people, planet, profit,’ in textiles, much of the attention has been put on planet. But, as the example of the Indian farmers demonstrates, it’s also about people. When you start to work with people, the environmental ramifications are serious because they are being exposed to the toxins, and they can’t sustain their livelihoods. They can’t afford to feed their families. The cycle of fast fashion has driven costs down so low, that consumers only want extremely cheap clothing. So the question is, how do we create a more efficient supply chain where farmers can share grievances and are paid fairly? Where American consumers can understand that their clothing isn’t growing & made in their department store, but instead that people’s lives are being affected by the products and brands they are buying and supporting?

What Fair Trade does is to create an account for these farmers and/or factory workers so that they have a forum to voice their concerns. Marry that with the orders that the USA companies are placing. When you add the Fair Trade premium to the account, the farmers and/or workers can be paid “bonuses” that equate to a living wage, while also using their funds to invest into important and much needed community development initiatives such as education and health care.

And Fair Trade and Organic definitely compliment each other because not only are farmers getting paid more, their health is also being protected from the adverse effects of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and they don’t have to pay the extra money on these pesticides. Nearly half of Fair Trade Certified products that were imported into the USA in the last few years were certified organic.

Organic cotton farmers in India don't have to worry about pesticides damaging their health. India is the largest supplier of organic cotton, accounting for 80% of global production.

Organic cotton farmers in India don’t have to worry about pesticides damaging their health. India is the largest supplier of organic cotton, accounting for 80% of global production.

Nadia: What does the Fair Trade USA Garment and Textile certification ensure?

Marci: It protects both cotton farmers and/or factories from wage exploitation and terrible working conditions. A new model for living wages has been built in on top of the basic social standards (no child labor, fair working conditions, etc.) that have already been implemented by many USA companies. Farms and factories are checked periodically. It gives them premiums (funds) that are for community and social investment. So let’s say a company in the USA, like Under the Canopy, for example, bought Fair Trade Certified items from an Indian factory for $100. We would pay a percentagesomewhere between 5-10%- into a fund that the workers would control. Then, as a collective, the workers would decide where to invest their moneyin health care, the building of a school, child care, etc. We would then, in turn, be able to monitor and measure these specific impacts, to communicate back to our customers and loyal consumers. It is our job to offset some of those premiums in other creative ways, such as enhanced design, product innovation, and by creating efficiencies in our supply chain.

For Fair Trade flower farmers in Ecuador, the Fair Trade premium supports education for their children (photo courtesy of oneworldflowers.org).

For Fair Trade flower farmers in Ecuador, the Fair Trade premium supports education for their children (photo courtesy of oneworldflowers.org).

Nadia: I recently read that Fair Trade cotton is grown by 37 certified cotton farmer groups in 10 countries, and that in Mali, 95 percent of children of Fair Trade farmers go to school, which is more than double the national average for school attendance in a very poor country.

Marci: Yes, buying and supporting Fair Trade Certified products is truly affecting positive change in the lives of others in our global community. When I am in these projects, with the farmers and workers making our products, I am fueled by these efforts towards social justice, knowing that “like water for chocolate”, the happy energy of our growers and/or makers is in the soul, or DNA, of my brands.

 Nadia: One of the really cool things about companies that work with fair trade artisans is that they absorb the costs of any discounts they may be having. Like, I can get a ring 25% off, and the artisan is still paid in full.

Marci:

Farmers and factory workers shouldn’t have to suffer when other people win.

But that’s how the current system works. We have to look at every way we can support farmers and factory workers. The minimum wage isn’t enough to sustain a family of four in most countries, so these efforts will support our partners’ basic needs (which is different for each country.) With the recent fire in the Bangladesh apparel factory where over 112 workers died due to poor working conditions, it is clearly imperative that we protect our fellow humanity.

Also, while I think Fair Trade is essential, if our cultural tendency is for faster, cheaper, “more” consumption, it will remain a challenge to balance market demand with a more sustainable model. Education & awareness are paramount and the time is NOW.

The impact of organic cotton farming and Fair Trade on people’s lives:

Additional Resources:

  • Want to learn more about Fair Trade? Here’s a primer.
  • Want to see how Indian farmers are growing organic cotton on their farms? Click here.
  • Need help finding brands that use organic cotton? Check out this link.
  • Organic cotton grown in the United States? Watch here.

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