Feature

Gulit-free fashion from Bangladesh

Green Lifestyle magazine

Amidst tales of Bangladesh's exploitative clothing industry, two Australian designers are creating positive fashion stories.

Bangladesh Fashion

Bachhara’s Sheema Black and White dress ($360) is not only made ethically – it is versatile enough to be worn ethically; it can be worn as a shoulder dress, a halter or cross-over around the neck.

Bachhara

Bachhara's beautiful Butterfly Kaftan, $310.

Bachhara-short

Bachhara's short Venus Tunic Dress is $260.

Bachhara-Aloe-Vera

Bachhara's Aloe Vera Kaftan is light, breezy and perfect for summer lounging.

Bangladesh Bhalo

Bhalo uses ethically hand woven and naturally dyed fabrics for its shift dresses, shorts and other beautiful pieces, such as the pictured Paper Daisy Skirt, $67, and Daphne Blouse, $50.

Credit: Andrew Gough

Bhalo

Bhalo's Cane Blouse, $160, and Maple Trouser, $72, are a tailored, stylish addition to the new designs coming out of Bangladesh from Australian designers.

Bhalo-blouse

Bhalo's Taga Blouse is $160.

Bhalo-dress

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In the past few months Bangladesh, the world’s second largest garment producer (and perhaps non-coincidently one of the poorest countries), has featured in headlines over the globe. The collapse of the Rana Plaza clothing factory complex near Dhaka in Bangladesh, where about 1000 people died, has brought to light some of the consequences of our insatiable appetite for fast cheap fashion.

With the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ label quickly becoming stigmatised and America and the European Union suspending and reviewing all Bangladeshi exports, it is important that we, as consumers and retailers, don’t turn our backs completely on the country’s 3.7 million garment workers. Bangladesh is making rapid industrial progress and is home to some 5000 factories with varying standards.

Daisy Gardener, labour rights coordinator of Oxfam Australia says, “It is very important that rather than pulling out of Bangladesh, Australian companies sourcing from Bangladesh stay in the country and support their supplier factories with good prices and conditions.”

Since the event, international campaigns and name and shame games have successfully pressured more than 70 big brands, such as Kmart and Cotton On, to sign the Bangladeshi Fire and Safety Accord. This will ensure independent reports of factory health and safety are routinely carried out and employees are entitled to choose representatives to raise concerns over these matters. Although hugely significant progress that needs our support, this is really the tip of the iceberg to addressing human right violations, not to mention the ecological damages caused by such an intensely condensed industry.

With consumer awareness of the injustices growing, it is important to also embrace those smaller labels that are going that next step by nurturing and supporting some of the most underprivileged communities. Australian fashion brands such as Bachhara and Bhalo are prime examples of how a successful label can meet fair labour standards and break the cycle of poverty.

Perth-based Bhalo, founded by Jess Priemus, works with fairtrade organisation Thanapara Swallows which pays workers a living wage and offers free schooling and health care for them and their families. Producing beautiful womenswear is not the only goal for the brand. Supporting decent working conditions and valuing traditional weaving and embroidery has empowered employees and the surrounding community.

“At first when the [Rana Plaza] building collapsed and they were saying 150 to 200 people had died, I was surprised that it was getting so much media attention, as there are actually massive factory disasters in Bangladesh every few years,” Priemus says, adding there had been 43 fires in the past 18 months alone.

“In 2012 there was a fire in Ashulia where 117 people died, 200 injured, and it got basically no media coverage. I guess Rana Plaza was the tipping point, as the death count started rising it was like a nightmare being played out.”

Founder of Bachhara, Amanda Ryan, is also familiar with the injustices taking place in Bangladesh and hopes this disaster will result in widespread change. “Rana Plaza has given a face to unethical fashion,” she says. Since starting up her label five years ago, Ryan has seen a growth in interest and value in ethically produced clothing, especially in the aftermath of Rana Plaza.

During time living in the slums of Dhaka’s Rayer Bazaar, Australian born Ryan found the level of poverty, mostly caused by poor wages, heartbreaking. Bachhara was born from a desire to offer properly paid work to the Rayer Bazaar slum community and get children off the streets and into school once they no longer need to work to support the family. The concept is simple, if the parents get paid properly, the children do not have to work to help feed the family and can instead educate themselves.

“When I first started Bachhara and our sewing centre, I thought starting a small centre and doing it well was the best way to change things,” Ryan says. “It certainly has dramatically changed the lives of our staff and their families.” However, the truth is, doing it this way will not prevent circumstances like Rana Plaza from happening and it is slow and hard. Bachhara has already changed the lives of many families, a huge accomplishment considering the trials and tribulations of competing with bigger businesses.

“Factories will do what ever they need to to get work,” Ryan confides “So if you have a big company making big orders that demands a certain level of ethical standards, the factories will abide to these standards and do so very quickly.”

In order for these brands to improve their labour requirements and take responsibility, they need to see a desire from the public, Jess Priemus states. “Consumers need to pressure large clothing labels to ensure that the working conditions for their factories are ethical and safe, and make sure that people are being paid fairly for their work and not doing crazy amounts of overtime. This may mean that the price of clothes does have to increase slightly in some cases. We do actually have wthe power, as buyers.”

So where does this leave us? Daisy Gardener encouragingly says: “No company is too big to listen to its customers.” She urges us to ask questions, email, Facebook, scream and shout to make our demand for ethically produced clothing heard. Big businesses need to know that in this day and age, preventable disasters like Rana Plaza are unacceptable.