Yesterday a factory collapsed in Lahore, Pakistan, killing at least 20 people. As many as 150 more people could be trapped beneath the rubble. It’s hard to know how high the death toll is going to climb.
At least 20 people are dead. At least 20 families are destroyed. Voices are heard coming from underneath the rubble. Family members stand by uncertainly, hoping to see their relative pulled safely from the debris.
The cause of the collapse isn’t completely clear, but a third floor was being built while the rest of the building was in use. Building safety levels are notoriously poor in Pakistan, as are the conditions of many of the people working in the factories.
Why did the factory collapse? Probably the same reason that the Rana Plaza factory collapsed. It was shoddily built, there were no security checks, the government isn’t interested in spending the money or the manpower, and the companies who source the products aren’t interested in spending the money. In short, no one cares.
The factory produced plastic bags. We use between 500 million and one trillion plastic bags every year. The factory existed to produce plastic bags so that we can pick one up in a shop for free or for cheap, so that we can throw them in a bin or a cupboard. Plastic bags, when they wind up in a landfill, take between 400 to 1,000 years to degrade. Plastic bags are one of the biggest pollutants of our oceans, and kill a number of animals that mistake them for food.
Let’s take a step back and look at the situation: Thousands of people work in poverty conditions to make a product in a factory. The factories are unsafe. Once in a while, a factory collapses, killing dozens, or hundreds, or thousands. The product has a short period of usefulness before it is thrown away to now begin damaging the earth, sealife and other animals. Looks crazy, right?
That perspective has to be applied to all of the products that we consume. So many of the systems that we have are catastrophically unsustainable and unbelievably exploitative. Who made the plastic bag you just threw away? Who picked the tomatoes you’re about to eat?
Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, put it very well when he asked “How did we end up in an era when we have to define and certify things that should be normal?”
It’s true of so many industries, and fashion is among the worst. In the past couple of decades we’ve become completely addicted to the idea of cheap, disposable clothes. Our appetite grows for it, but we haven’t fully considered the cost. And the cost is enormous, both the human cost and the environmental cost.
And for what? Does buying cheap jeans and t-shirts make us happy? Do endless plastic bags contribute to our wellbeing? We buy or are given cheap items that might get worn once or twice, or thrown out after a while, or left in the back of a closet, items that you have no connection to, no real enjoyment of. That doesn’t make us happy and in fact contributes to feelings of disaffection.
We’ve got a horrifically unjust system that keeps people in poverty and all too often lets them die, and we have that system so that we can buy clothes that don’t make us happy.
When you read about tragedies like this one in Lahore, one’s instinct is to get angry at the negligent officials and the corporate bodies that are profiting off of it. Really though, the blame lies mostly at our feet. We vote with our money. If we continue to expect and buy these products at these prices, they will continue to be made in these conditions. If we want things to be made fairly, but we’re not willing to change our view of them, then we implicitly endorse this horrible system. The only way to change it—and it drastically, radically needs changing—is to do something about it.
When you read about these tragedies in your newsfeed, remember that you are not so removed from it. Maybe that particular factory didn’t supply anything to you, but other factories have. Nike has factories in the area, as does Walmart. It’s not about an isolated factory, it’s about a system of neglect and slavery. If we oppose slavery and injustice and poverty, as we believe we do, then we need to act on it. We can no longer personally profit from these systems, or allow them to go unchecked because it requires a little effort.