Remembering Rana Plaza: Is Fashion Revolution Enough?

Two things are missing from the talk and promotion of sustainable apparel and the Fashion Revolution -- both have to do with history.
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Before I knew how to read, my pre-literate brain wondered why a tag on the inside of my clothes said "igloo"?

That ILGWU (International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union) label and memories of the "Look for the Union Label" ditty I heard growing up, mean much more to me now. The 1981 radio/TV ad, to support union-made-in-America clothing, was a political campaign to keep American unions and jobs.

The labels, sometimes featuring the name or number of the maker, were literally part of the fabric of my youth. There's only one reason I still see them: I sell vintage clothing. The reason I would love to see them come into fashion again: I'm a sustainable apparel entrepreneur and local sewing and manufacturing talent is hard to find.

As Fashion Revolution Week commemorates the April 24, 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy (2,500 injured and 1,134 killed in a shoddy garment factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh) it puts our focus on the fashion industry, to promote sustainability and call out corporate accountability.

As a vintage seller, my perspective is wider and more inclusive. Not everything you wear has to be in current production. A Bust article joked that seeing a "made in the U.S.A." label was about as rare as seeing a NY taxi cab in a thunderstorm. But when I look at #whomademyclothes, I often see the ILGWU union label.

Two things are missing from the talk and promotion of sustainable apparel and the Fashion Revolution -- both have to do with history.

First, the power of historical, used clothing.

Vintage fashion, an important resource and inspiration to designers, is downplayed in the media. When it does receive attention, it's more as museum pieces, the collectible designer labels, rather than the everyday vintage items I like that blend seamlessly with my lifestyle and wardrobe. And too often, vintage clothing is left out of discussion of sustainable apparel, which is ridiculous, because purchasing used clothing -- vintage and thrift -- is one of the most sustainable ways to build and supplement your wardrobe, with the added perk of cultivating a more individual style.

Many current fashion trends play off historical styles. For the consumer, vintage clothes are an excellent resource for creating similar looks. Gucci 2016, for example, borrows heavily from graphic, contrasting prints typical of the 1970s. So, if, like me, you're not interested in spending upwards of $3,000 on one authentic designer item, I'm here to tell you: there are more sustainable options.

If you turn to your favorite internet, mall or department store brand, know this: you could be supporting sweat- and blood-labor in other countries. Without corporate transparency, there is no guarantee your purchase wasn't made by someone who will die in a factory like Rana Plaza. Try shopping vintage to find iconic pieces you can mix for the same Gucci-esque mod iconoclasm. You could buy an entire outfit (dress, jacket and scarf) for $50-$80 total.

If you tend to buy knockoff styles at big discount retailers, you're in the same position, making yourself look and feel good for a great, personal, price but at the potential cost of endangering someone's life or health halfway around the world. If this is you, I suggest perusing local thrift shops regularly. You can find the exact same clothes someone else discarded, often never worn. Plus, you might get lucky and score a unique vintage find.

We must begin including vintage and thrift as sustainable options, not only for the practical reasons: encompassing all three "Rs" (reduce, reuse, recycle) and increased affordability. But for poetic reasons as well: our conscience, our style, our soul, our sense of history.

That brings me to the second issue, the history.

I laud Fashion Revolution's and other's campaigns, but am disappointed when a tragedy like Rana Plaza is not further grounded in historical fact. Knowledge creates a healthy skepticism; after all, our new demand for transparency in #whomademyclothes directly results from discovering that big-name American brands manufactured their clothes in that death trap.

When we only know the most recent example of corporate irresponsibility, it creates the illusion of merely tragic mistakes, exceptions, rather than the whole picture, the truth that goes back to the 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist fire in New York City.

Images of young women, locked on their factory floors, forced to jump to their deaths, bodies piling up on the sidewalks ... the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a turning point for America, for women, for manufacturing, for labor history -- at least for a few decades. Like Rana Plaza, it was more than a preventable tragedy; it was an intentional injustice. Do we think that if the same horror happens on a different continent it doesn't matter?

As The True Cost documentary asks, did we fall for the promise of globalization? Believing in a dual benefit of affordable consumer goods here, more jobs abroad? Quality suffers all around.

It all goes back to that union label, a symbol of the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the Triangle Shirt Waist fire, a symbol of the power of women organizing for fair wages. A former stamp of working-class, feminist fair trade.

When I look for labels, I look for the union label and smile, both with a sense of nostalgia and with knowledge that it represents the struggle of women protesting to feed their families. It conveys a very real, sustainable thing to me, because I think the best way to slow your style is to know your history.

I challenge you to go find a union label and get inspired!