"Clothes to Die For" - the echoes of Rana Plaza
Anyone who watched "Clothes to Die For," the BBC 2 documentary on the Rana Plaza disaster, will perhaps share my conflicting feelings of hope and despair. The moving, sometimes horrifying programme ended with optimism, yet the underlying message could not have been clearer - choices we make here in the West about what to buy, and for how much, have a direct and unmistakeable effect on people working in the developing world.
After the disaster in April 2013 there was a wave of hand wringing and promise making. Never again, we said, would we forget the people who made our "cheap" clothes. And yet here we are, only a year or so later, and if I asked most people who come into our shop what they thought about Rana Plaza they wouldn't know what I was talking about.
It's not their fault. It's like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his chickens. We watch him slaving away in a crowded, dark barn, and vow only to eat free range from now on. The weeks and months pass, and the Co-op has an offer on something. We wonder whether maybe the Red Tractor is good enough. Or it's been marked down as it's going out of date, and hey - food waste is an issue too, right? Soon we're a bit more relaxed about free range. The same happens with cheap clothes. The dust settles. The world moves on, to Brazil, to the Ukraine, to Gaza. There are bigger fights.
What set "Clothes to Die For" apart from other similar documentaries (and Sam Wollaston touches on this in his Guardian review) is the way it allowed the women who were affected by the disaster to speak in their own words. These are not automatons - working in a factory for twelve hours then going back to their slums to sleep - these are living, breathing, loving, laughing human beings. They want to buy phones, new clothes. They want to get married, have kids. They dream. They are like us. And yet here they are hacking off their own limbs. Burying their younger sister. Dying.
And so, we feel despair. We know that in a few months, someone will tell us excitedly about a bargain, a real steal - only a fiver! And we will wince, but say nothing, because it will be in the past.
So what can we do? "Clothes to Die For" also gave us hope. One of the volunteer rescuers, previously on a fast-track to a big house and a BMW, had turned his back on big money after Rana Plaza. He set up Oporajeo, a workers' cooperative making clothes in clean, fair conditions. It's on one floor, so as not to risk flashbacks to the collapse of the building. Workers have a share in the profits. By choosing products which are made in these conditions, we can feel more assured that we are not saving money at the expense of lives far away. But will people be prepared to pay more?
Ultimately, the story of Rana Plaza is complex, and involves shades of grey, not black and white. If the owner hadn't been so greedy and built extra stories, perhaps the building would never have collapsed. The women who worked there weren't slaves - they wanted to work there, as they earned abundantly more than they could in their villages. So it strikes me that what we really need is conscious consumerism. If we thought more about what we bought - where did this come from? who made it? where is that person sleeping tonight? what are they and their family eating? what is going to happen to it when I can no longer use it? - then it would be a start. The start of a long road towards a more balanced economy.
"Clothes to Die For" is currently available to watch on the iPlayer.