'I don't want anyone wearing anything which is produced by our blood' – Garment worker in Bangladesh.
It's been more than two years since the fatal Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, where 1,100 people were tragically killed and the lives of loved ones dramatically changed forever. This event has been recorded as the second worst industrial accident of all time. It has also been recognised as an event that could have been avoided. It could have been avoided by governments, investors, retailers and consumers—consumers like you and me.
While this horrific event may have sparked our collective conscience to know more about the people producing our clothes, there is still a lack of commitment from Christians to ensure they are not directly buying into the exploitation of the poor.
Second only to China, Bangladesh is the largest producer of clothing in the world. The workers are being paid less than $2 an hour with almost no health, wage or safety standards. The garment factory collapse disaster in Bangladesh is not uncommon. Despite this, the year following the disaster was the industry's most profitable of all time. The global fashion industry is now an almost three trillion dollar industry.
While these are promising signs for the fashion industry, the problems remain significant. Overall the industry is still categorised by poverty level wages. In Baptist World Aid's ground-breaking research, a mere 12% of companies could demonstrate any action towards paying wages above the legal minimum, and even then, only for part of their supply chain.
Investors and retailers justify their actions by arguing that they are providing jobs for people who would be worse off otherwise. They assert that the workers know no better, and that they are helping to improve the economies of developing countries such as Bangladesh. Yet the wider impact our fast fashion consumption has on people's lives, leaves no doubt that the fashion industry is defined by the exploitation of our poor.
Aside from labour exploitation, our increasing demand for cheap clothing has a significant effect on the environment, endangering the health of entire villages subject to harmful chemical waste.
Moreover, workers who harvest cotton face life-threatening health issues from overexposure to pesticides used on the seeds which have been intentionally genetically modified to require such chemical spraying. The negative impacts are endless, generational burdens for those who are most vulnerable and have no other options.
The Jesus way
The Christian life, according to Jesus, is clearly marked by social justice. If we are not engaging in building God's Kingdom on the earth as it is in heaven, we are simply not living the Jesus way.
It is always the most unlikely, unholy, and unrighteous person that Jesus has mercy on. This is because our God's heart beats for the weak and helpless. He extends His grace to those in the darkest and damning places, and opposes those who are high and lofty. One cannot read through the Bible and not understand that God has favour on the broken, the marginalised, and the desperate.
It is no coincidence that two of the clearest teachings from Jesus on the topic of eternal life, are directly linked to our care for the poor. The parable of the Good Samaritan is Christ's answer to the Pharisees' question of who will inherit eternal life. He reiterates our greatest command of loving our neighbour, who is depicted as a man that was robbed and in need of help. Jesus asks us to be like the Good Samaritan who showed mercy on the man in need.
The parable of the Sheep and the Goats has a similar context. Jesus is clear and firm in the importance of obeying the two greatest commandments, illustrating that in fact they are one and the same:
'Then they themselves also will answer, "Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?" Then He will answer them, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me."'(Matthew chapter 25 verses 44–45)
Love thy neighbour
So what does it mean to 'love your neighbour' in the context of our consumption? Can the nature of a God of justice, love and freedom ever be reflected in a market system driven by self-interest, greed and exploitation?
Will we continue to search for happiness in the consumption of things? Will we be satisfied by a system that makes us feel rich, while leaving our world so desperately poor? Will we continue to turn a blind eye to the lives of those behind our clothes?
...will this be the a turning point, as we listen to Christ's cry for His kingdom on earth, where together we begin to make a real change as we remember that everything we wear was touched by human hands. In the midst of all the challenges facing us today, all the problems that feel bigger than us and beyond our control, maybe we could start here, with clothing.
We CAN make a difference
- Investigate where your clothes are coming from: http://www.baptistworldaid.org.au/assets/Be-Fair-Section/FashionReport.pdf
- Choose to buy ethical and fair trade clothing (and food): http://www.the-stockroom.co.nz/ethical-clothing-companies/If we can't afford ethical clothing, we can try buying fewer items every year, or source the rest of our wardrobe from second-hand stores and opp shops!
- Take a stand for justice, both internationally and locally: educate ourselves on migrant exploitation in New Zealand and Australia and be challenged to live the Jesus way by advocating for these people.
- We should encourage our churches to discuss this issue and promote ethical consumption by partnering with businesses that empower workers rather than exploiting them.
Sam is currently living in Auckland, New Zealand working as a carpenter while starting up his own social enterprise to assist refugees into employment.
Sam Rillstone's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-rillstone.html