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5 Consumer Activism Campaigns that Changed the Garment Industry

Keeping the Clothes Business Clean


NEW YORK (MainStreet) —The recent collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh has sparked outrage among consumers who are increasingly concerned about the conditions in which their clothing is manufactured.

The tragedy, which occurred in a crowded suburb of the Bangladeshi capitol of Dhaka, has so far claimed more than 400 lives and is considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry. Perhaps the most saddening part of the incident is that it was preventable. Earlier in the week, building owner Sohel Rana was informed of suspicious cracks and ordered to close the eight-story building for business. He ignored the orders, and the following day, the building was in shambles.

But there is plenty of blame to go around. Rana, in an interview with Bangladeshi news source bdnews24.com, points his finger at the building’s factory owners, who faced tight deadlines from their western clients.

“I did not force the owners,” he said. “It was them who forced me, saying they would face huge losses and shipments would be canceled if the factories were closed for even one day.”

Rana Plaza contained five garment factories, reported to manufacture clothing for western brands like JC Penney, Joe Fresh, Mango, Benetton and Primark.

The incident has sparked anger, but it has also inspired action. Under consumer pressure, governments and corporations are now engaging in long-overdue conversations to reform what is obviously a broken industry. A number of petitions are circulating the Internet, notably ones from the Clean Clothes Campaign and Bangladesh’s National Garment Workers Federation, allowing consumers to express their support for change.

There is hope that this tragedy will force fashion brands to insist on better conditions and stricter regulations in the factories where they do business. And there is reason to believe that these campaigns will be successful. As the following five examples show, consumer activism campaigns have a long history of effecting positive, lasting change in the garment industry.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire


On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Lower Manhattan caught fire, killing 146 garment workers, most of them young immigrant women. Later investigations revealed horrendously unsafe working conditions, like one fire exit for the whole building and padlocked doors to prevent theft.

The immigrant communities of the Lower East Side were outraged, and groups like the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Womens’ Trade Union League took to the streets to call for reform.

“I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves,” said Rose Schneiderman, an organizer for the women’s unions, in a 1911 address. “The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

Word of the fire spread from the Lower East Side, to state officials, all the way to Congress. Governor Al Smith and social worker Frances Perkins, who later became Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt, used the incident as an impetus to push through state-wide workplace reforms, such as better safety standards, more sanitary conditions, and caps on the number of hours that women and children could work. New York’s reforms later served as a model for the rest of the country, fundamentally changing workplace standards in America.

India’s Khadi Movement


In the early part of the 20th century, Great Britain dominated the global cotton market, producing more than eight billion yards of cloth per year. As a consequence, colonial India, once a major cotton exporter, became reliant on imported British cotton. Mahatma Gandhi saw this reliance as a major hurdle to the Indian independence movement, and he launched the Khadi Movement, which called on Indians to boycott British cotton goods and return to the traditional homespun khadi textile.

“Machinery in the past has made us dependent on England, and the only way we can rid ourselves of the dependence is to boycott all goods made by machinery,” Gandhi wrote. “This is why we have made it the patriotic duty of every Indian to spin his own cotton and weave his own cloth.”

Though the British Raj attempted to stop the Khadi Movement through confiscation, jailing and violence, Gandhi’s boycott ultimately succeeded in crippling British cotton production, forcing 74 mills to close in Lancashire and Blackburn in just four years. The movement remains a striking example of the power of consumer boycotts to affect politics and government.

PETA’s Anti-Fur Campaigns


The tactics of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) may be controversial, but they have been largely successful in changing the way that consumers view fur.

PETA kicked off its first anti-animal skins campaign in 1988, when it released a graphic undercover video investigation of a beaver fur farm in Montana that led to its closing. But PETA’s best-remembered efforts veer toward the extreme, like runway protests at New York Fashion Week and pies thrown at designers like Michael Kors and Oscar de la Renta. And then there’s PETA’s famous “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign, which launched in 1991 and has had celebrities from Christy Turlington to Khloe Kardashian pose naked in protest of animal cruelty.

As a direct result of PETA’s aggressive campaigns, real fur has gone from being considered en vogue to déclassé, and retailers like Ann Taylor, Brooks Brothers, Calvin Klein, Eddie Bauer, Polo Ralph Lauren and J. Crew have pledged to stop selling fur entirely.

United Students Against Sweatshops


Throughout the 1990s, sweatshops were a hot topic in the human rights world. Toward the end of the decade, a group of activist college students decided to take a stand by targeting the part of the industry closest to them: the $3 billion collegiate apparel industry. In 1997, students from five universities launched the “Sweat Free Campus Campaign,” which pressured administrators to adopt codes of conduct for their athletic gear licensees.

The campaign evolved into the United Students Against Sweatshops organization in 1998, and the following year, under student pressure, a number of major universities enacted some of the first codes of conduct in the garment industry, which included disclosing factory locations, paying a living wage, and specifying women’s rights provisions. The codes forced companies like Nike to announce that they would publicly disclose their factory locations – a major victory for both the students and the industry.

The students soon realized that codes of conduct would not be enough to hold companies accountable, so they created the Worker Rights Consortium to serve as a model for factory compliance investigation. When faced with supplier backlash, the students took to the quads of their college campuses, staging occupations and sit-ins across the country. The WRC ultimately spread to more than 80 college campuses and has been instrumental in pushing for the resolution of factory disputes both domestically and abroad.

Greenpeace Detox Fashion


Greenpeace has a long history of fighting for environmental issues. In 2011, it decided to turn its attention to fashion with the release of a report called “Dirty Laundry,” which linked Chinese textile manufacturing facilities with hazardous water waste. That July, Greenpeace launched the first iteration of its “Detox Fashion” campaign, urging Nike and Adidas to eliminate toxic, persistent and hormone-disrupting chemicals from their products and production processes.

Their tactics were provocative. They dispersed naked retail mannequins wearing nothing but a “tattoo” of the Chinese symbol for water in locations from Manila to Madrid. They planned the world’s largest coordinated striptease outside Adidas and Nike stores around the globe. They also leveraged social media, launching an online design competition challenging consumers to redesign the Nike and Adidas logos to better reflect their toxic practices.

Though not actively targeted, Puma signed on to the Detox Fashion campaign just two weeks after it launched. Nike joined on in August when faced with pressure from jts customer base, and Adidas signed on a few weeks later. The campaign then expanded, targeting and signing on H&M, C&A, and Li-Ning in 2011; Marks & Spencer, Zara, Mango, Esprit, and Levi’s in 2012; and Uniqlo, Bennetton, Victoria’s Secret, G-Star, and Coop in 2013.

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