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."
In September, a fire at a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan, killed 264 people. The youngest victim was just 10 years old. Women's Wear Daily reported at the time:
Chief fire officer Ehtisham-ud-Din told reporters that the large number of casualties was due in large part to the fact that there were no emergency doors, no extra stairways and most of the people died of suffocation in the locked, smoke-filled basement.
There was some good news: after Tommy Hilfiger was confronted with news that 29 workers had died in a fire at one of its suppliers' factories in Bangladesh, the brand worked with Bangladeshi labor-rights groups to develop new, more stringent safety standards for its suppliers, and gave $1-2 million in funding for enforcement of those new standards. Tommy Hilfiger also convinced the Gap, another retailer that had contracted with factories that put workers' lives at risk for the sake of profit, to sign on to the same standards.
In May, Condé Nast International and the editors of all 19 global editions of Vogue announced that they would no longer hire children under the age of 16 to model adult clothing for their pages. Vogue took this measure because of health and safety concerns both for the models themselves and for the women who are the primary targets of fashion's imagery. At the time, we wrote:
The modeling industry's reliance on child labor has been linked to everything from financial exploitation of models, to interrupted or abandoned educations, to eating disorders that stem from the pressure to maintain the measurements of girlhood well past puberty. Not to mention to setting up an unrealistic ideal for the adult women who are the main consumers of fashion's imagery.
In August, Vogue violated its pledge. In September, it violated its pledge again. Then Vogue said it really, really promised to really, really stop hiring children to do the work of adults. Meanwhile, every other fashion magazine and designer on earth happily continued hiring hungry 13-year-old Lithuanians.
Speaking of children and their labor, a report published by the U.S. Department of Labor in September found that 215 million children are still working in violation of international law. More than half of those children face dangerous working conditions. An estimated six million children are forced or slave laborers (that's out of a total of 21 million forced or slave laborers worldwide).
Although child labor is also common in industries like agriculture and mining, the apparel and textiles manufacturing industries bear a substantial responsibility for this state of affairs. The dictatorship of Uzbekistan, one of the world's leading producers of cotton, has long been known for forcing millions of children as young as 10 to pick cotton. Footwear manufacturers in Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, and Indonesia were faulted for their reliance on child labor. So were manufacturers of yarn and thread in India, and apparel in Vietnam, Brazil, Argentina, China, India, Jordan, Malaysia, and Thailand, among others. It certainly makes you think twice about buying those cheap socks at Target, H&M, or Wal-Mart — all companies who have been criticized for using child labor in their supply chains — doesn't it?
And lest anyone think that no man, woman, or child in the U.S. is currently toiling in sweatshop conditions, thanks to our labor and wage laws and workplace safety and environmental regulations, the Department of Labor has been investigating the Los Angeles-based chain Forever 21 for using sweatshop labor since 2008. Since then, explained the department, "our investigators have identified dozens of manufacturers producing goods for Forever 21 under sweatshoplike conditions." This year, the company failed to comply with a court order to turn over records pertaining to its workers' wages and hours.
In a separate case, Forever 21 was also sued this year for allegedly forcing its retail employees to work through legally mandated breaks and to work after clocking out.
This year, Greenpeace published a major report into the use of hazardous chemicals in the apparel industry. In 141 garments that the organization purchased at retail, including items by Diesel, Zara, Tommy Hilfiger, Victoria's Secret, and Levi's, and had tested in independent, accredited laboratories, scientists identified chemicals including nonylphenol ethoxylates, phthalates, and carcinogenic amines. In certain concentrations, those substances can pose a threat to human health.
In response, Zara and Levi's have since pledged to eliminate toxic chemicals from their respective supply chains. Zara set the goal date of 2020.