Ethical fashion and the ills of Capitalism – A year after Rana Plaza

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Last Thursday marked the one year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh when more than a thousand workers died in a clothes factory. Looking at the root causes of the ills in the garments industry, Dilly Hussain explains as to how they should be tackled from an Islamic perspective.

The issue of extravagance has been a disease for thousands of years, but never in human history have we witnessed such a global demand for fashionable clothes the way in which we do now.

But it’s not the acclaimed designer brands that I’m talking about. Armani, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Versace, Gucci – they’re not the ones to have caught the world’s attention in recent times, the brands under the spotlight are the likes of Primark and Walmart.

Global capitalism

As a result of global capitalism and the demand for affordable but fashionable clothing, thousands in the third world suffer inhumane treatment to deliver consumer needs – women, children and even animals.

Whether its Bangladeshis living in poverty who have to work 18 hour shifts in appalling conditions or the barbaric butchering of animals for their fur, all of this is done in the name of supply and demand.

Continuing to address “symptoms” as opposed to the root causes is a deceptive mirage, intertwining high numbers of labourers willing to work under hazardous conditions in order to be able to provide for their families.

It is simply not good enough to hold conventions in five-star hotels and conference halls in the name of ethical fashion and fair trade, discussing health and safety measures, animal rights, excessive labour and work conditions. What is required is a robust hands on approach, taking on the string pulling Godfathers of big corporate companies and the corrupt governments who allow such despicable treatment of humans and animals in order to bankroll millions of pounds of profits.

The short-lived fruits of lobbying and pressure groups

Without being over critical about the efforts of fair trade lobbyists and ethical fashion activists, one has to ask, what exactly are we demanding from the likes of Primark and Walmart? To stop using cheap labour in third world countries like Bangladesh? Make sure employees work a maximum of 12 hours instead of 18? Or let the animals die of hunger instead of hacking them to death once they’ve been skinned alive for their fur?

Whether its designer brands or high street retailers, business is business and all that matters is revenue. That is the raw and uncut truth of global capitalism. The passionate efforts of activists and pressure groups that work tirelessly to improve working conditions in clothing factories will inevitably regress. Deadlines still have to be met, consumers still want their affordable clothing, and the businesses exist to make huge profits.

Primark paid a further compensation of £6m to victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse.
Primark paid a further compensation of £6m to victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse.

Now many would argue that steady and promising developments have been made. New York-based research institute Ethisphere’s advisory panel formed of leading professors, government officials and attorneys recently published a list of 144 businesses across 41 different industries. Amongst the 144 businesses, H&M, Marks & Spencers and GAP were considered the most ethical.

In contrast, British retailer Primark was the first to pay further compensation of £6m just last month to victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse. Campaigners hope Primark’s payment will help persuade other retailers linked to the Rana Plaza building to pay up.

But can death and calamity really be compensated by money and empty promises? Is it not time that a radical but ethical approach is to be considered?

The Islamic perspective

It is clear that oppression or any form of ill treatment is unacceptable in Islam, whether it be to a relative, friend, an employee or a complete stranger.

Regarding the duration of workers’ shifts or the salary they should be paid for their labour, this is something agreed between the worker and their employer in contract – as unfair or “unethical” it may seem to external spectators. Islam directs mankind to solve problems by identifying and eradicating causes behind the multiple problems that are sensed or observed. In context to ethical fashion, that cause is undeniably global capitalism and corrupt governments.

So what are the options that have been tried and currently being tested?

Boycott – Boycotting trade has never been from the Sunnah (example of the Prophet Muhammad). When the Jewish tribes of Madina conspired to assassinate Muhammad (saw) and destroy the Islamic state, the Muslims continued to trade with them even though they were aware of their plans. Likewise, boycotting big retailers will not make them address the underlying issues of supply and demand at human cost. Nor is it realistic to rally the whole world (ideally) to boycott a retailer. After all, the consumerist atmosphere in society instigated by Capitalist governments will always be an uphill struggle.

Lobbying and pressure groups – When the Rana Plaza in Savar, greater Dhaka collapsed, many politicians and world leaders came out to condemn what happened in Bangladesh. Deputy PM Nick Clegg said, “There’s more we could do to talk about what goes on behind the scenes and this terrible catastrophe might well prompt people to think again.” Walmart along with 14 other North American companies refused to sign the Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh Accord at a meeting of retailers and NGOs a week after the collapse. They were able to refuse because they knew too well that lobbying and pressure groups can only achieve so much before business resumes as normal.

Islam under numerous caliphates was a successful and beneficial superpower for a good part of a millennium. During its golden age, science, philosophy, architecture and art flourished. The Islamic duties of concern and justice for mankind were hugely responsible for the success achieved by the past Islamic empires. Perhaps one would assume that the government of Bangladesh would carry similar Islamic culture (being a predominantly Muslim country) that would drive them to be concerned about the working conditions of their citizens. To ensure that they are being treated fairly and that justice is upheld. Is the onus not on the government and Muslim factory owners to make clear to retailers that the safety of their employees and citizens come first before profits?

Can Islam offer an alternative to Capitalism?
Can Islam offer an alternative to Capitalism?

But it is when a government adopts the same Capitalist approach to its economy and employment, you find ruling parties capitalising on their terms in office by pocketing as much as they can and bending over backwards to keep the powerhouse retailers smiling. Sadly, the tag “corrupt governments” is qualified.

Muslims in the west have the responsibility of voicing their complaints and arguments, especially when those spoken about are victims unable to speak for themselves. Holding to account the merciless governments and corporations is pivotal to bringing people’s attention to the centrality of Capitalism as the perpetrator of these crimes. Muslims must lead by example in showing non-Muslims who sincerely want to make a difference in creating a more ethical fashion industry or any other noble cause, presenting Islam as a comprehensive way of life with solutions to all of mankind’s problems. Muslims must take the time to study and research the guidance Islam gives political affairs, not restricting the laws of Islam to rituals. Islam directs the fair distribution of wealth, a transparent government that can be held accountable and an economic system which disallows the monopolisation of a particular market at the expense of human misery.