And by "fashion disasters" we don't mean the kind where a celebrity arguably wore the wrong shoes with her dress. No, 2012 was a terrible, terrible year for fashion disasters that endangered — and even claimed — human lives. Factory fires in the world's low-wage centers of apparel manufacturing took the lives of hundreds of garment workers, Vogue pledged (and immediately failed to observe) a ban on underaged models in its pages, child labor continued to be a problem in dozens of countries central to the world's textile, footwear, and apparel supply chain, and Greenpeace's independent scientific testing found that everything you bought at a mall is probably full of toxic chemicals. This was not a good year for the apparel industry. But it might just be a wake-up call for Western consumers, who have the power to demand higher standards — assuming, that is, that we're also willing to pay for them.
2012 was one of the deadliest years in history for the world's garment workers. In November, 111 workers died and more than 200 were injured in a factory fire just outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. The death toll was higher than it might have been because the factory lacked fire escapes, sprinklers, and safety equipment — and because the factory's managers padlocked doors and directed workers to remain at their workstations even as the building went up in flames. The news of the fire — the deadliest industrial incident in Bangaldeshi history — sparked massive protests in favor of safer working conditions and higher wages. Bangladesh has in recent years grown to become the world's second-largest exporter of apparel after China; the textile and apparel manufacturing industries there are worth an estimated $18 billion annually. And the South Asian country has some of the lowest wages for garment workers in the world: just $43 per month. The factory which burned to the ground made clothes for Wal-Mart, Sean John, ENYCE, and C&A, among other brands. Wal-Mart C.E.O. and president Mark Duke said in the wake of the fire, "We're still stepping back again and saying, ‘What else can we do?'" But the New York Times has reported that in 2011, it was Wal-Mart officials who led the charge against improving safety standards at its suppliers' factories in Bangladesh. Why? Because, said a Wal-Mart official at the time, raising safety standards would be a "very extensive and costly modification."