The question is, what next? In a fascinating talk hosted by The Guardian and chaired by that paper's ethical living correspondent Lucy Siegel, experts and activists met recently to tease out a potential road map for future development.
Agreement was quickly reached on one issue: wages for garment workers needs to rise. They are frequently not paid enough to provide for their families, and portions of these meagre wages are often withheld or simply never appear in the pay packet. An agreed minimum wage structure would help, but even this is fraught with problems. For example, you can't simply apply it to one part of the workforce. Finding the right figure involves getting government agreement, and preferably involving both business owners and workers in the discussion. Even then, there's no guarantee that the solution will change: a boost in wages is usually met with a corresponding rise in prices and rents, leaving people as badly off as before.
Unionisation, much of the panel argued, is a major part of motivating change. Much of the benefits that we take for granted in the West come directly from collective bargaining. Transparent and regular negotiations could make for a positive change in the often fraught relationship between workers, factory owners and the government. All of this has to come from a great effort of will, of course, but there are other influences to bring into the mix.
The power of brands to implement change cannot be underestimated. When the annual earnings of a company like Adidas outstrip the GDP of Cambodia, for example, then it's clear that the high street names have significant leverage. The good news is that brands do want to be involved. Jenny Holdcroft, policy director of IndustriALL Global Union, representing 50 million workers worldwide, said that her organisation is working with 14 different companies, many recognisable in the high street, to come up with a new plan for collaboration and partnership. This willingness to embrace change is a radical shift from the position of just a few years ago - a clear sign of just how much the tragedy of Rana Plaza has changed the economic landscape.
Meanwhile, the role of the consumer is a little less clear. There was less agreement on the panel that buying a single ethical product makes a difference. Our time and efforts is, Seigel argues, better spent in supporting the efforts of garment workers across the world to make a better life for themselves and their families. In short, don't just buy something, do something.
Everyone on the panel agreed that there was a long way to go, and the challenges ahead are significant and complex. There's no one-size-fits-all solution that can be applied on a global basis. But the signs are more optimistic than they have been in a long time. Holdcroft notes that:
All the speakers were clear-eyed and realistic about the future of ethical fashion, and what needs to be done to give the humble garment worker a dignified and unexploited employment. But there does seem to be a new optimism, a new willingness on both sides of the negotiating table to make positive change. It seems that, out of the dust and rubble of Rana Plaza, a happier future migh just be starting to emerge.“We are working in a way we have never been able to do before, with brands that want to make a difference.”
There's more on the discussion over at the Guardian.