Discover the story of fast fashion and the voices that link the clothes in your wardrobe to the factory workers in Bangladesh.

We Are What We Wear

We Are What We Wear: Unravelling fast fashion and the collapse of Rana Plaza
Lucy Siegle
with reporting from Jason Burke


Fashion is many things. It is self-expression, big business, trend-setting, a lifestyle choice. But however you see fashion, it relies on one simple characteristic: the incredible speed with which clothes make their journey from the drawing board to the High Street hanger. Fashion is fast.

Fast fashion influences the types of garments we have in our wardrobes. It also describes the complex, multi-national supply chain that links the shirt on your back to the crowded, creaking factories in the world’s slums where clothes are made by a workforce numbering in the tens of millions.

The manufacturing pressures that come from our deep love of incredibly cheap, incredibly current fashions were shot to global attention in 2013 when the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city, collapsed in a cascade of tumbling rubble, twisted metal and trapped bodies. Over 1,100 people died, mainly young women.

We Are What We Wear is the story of what happened in Bangladesh and how fast fashion has grown to become the giant that it is today. The intimate accounts from the survivors of the collapse are mixed with an exploration of the history of fast fashion and of how the High Street both fuels and satisfies our every fashion wish. Award-winning reporter Jason Burke picks his way through the day of the collapse, while fashion and consumer expert Lucy Siegle looks at what has happened since – and what needs to happen next.


About the Author

Lucy Siegle

Lucy Siegle is a columnist for the Observer and the consumer expert for the BBC’s The One Show. As well as We Are What We Wear, she is also the author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?.


This extract is taken from the Introduction to We Are What We Wear

On the morning of 24 April 2013 the eight-storey Rana Plaza factory complex in Savar, on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s teeming capital Dhaka, collapsed. More than 1,100 people died, predominantly young women. It took three weeks for all of the 2,500 or more survivors to be pulled from the rubble. Eighty of them required amputations. Over 600 were classified as ‘severely injured’. A year passed and 200 workers were still officially missing; body parts were still be found in the foetid, rubbish-strewn pit which is now all that remains of the complex that comprised five factories producing hundreds of thousands of garments each month, a bank, a row of shops.

Though it was the worst industrial accident anywhere in the world for a generation, it was these clothes – identical to those found on any day in store windows on any high street in any western city – that explained the headlines across the globe. The news of the collapse brought with it, for western consumers, the reality that there was a very real possibility that they were wearing something that had been made in the ruined factory that they could now see on their screens. This was the link, a visceral connection beyond the natural human sympathy most tragedies evoke, that guaranteed a reaction.

The interest lasted around a week. Then the news agenda moved on, as it inevitably and necessarily does. So, eventually did Bangladesh, so did Dhaka and so did Savar. More or less.

But something hidden had been revealed, a part of the supply chain, long out of sight and consequently out of mind. For many of those watching the breathless bulletins or reading the headlines, it would have been the first time they had heard the voices of the workers who actually make the clothes of which a typical western wardrobe is now composed.

Shed a little light on it though, as this ebook aims to do, and it is soon clear that manufacturing in the fashion world is a complex, fascinating and, all too often, destructive process. In a world where so much has been automated to the nth degree, garment making is an incongruously human activity. There are an estimated 4 million garment workers in Bangladesh – the world’s second largest clothing exporter behind China – a figure that represents around a tenth of the global total. These are most likely young women, and occasionally men, whose job is to sit behind a sewing machine for hours at a time, sewing buttons on to shirts or sequins on to blouses.

Their salaries, as we shall see, are by many standards – especially those to which we are accustomed in the west, where we happily wear the fruits of their labours – pitiful. And yet in a country such as Bangladesh with precious few other opportunities for earning at least a semblance of financial independence, multitudes flock from the impoverished countryside to the chaotic cities in search of this exact work.

Dhaka has an estimated population of around 15 million, making it one of the world’s megacities. Interviewed by the assembled media in the aftermath of the collapse, the garment workers’ lives seem a familiar catalogue of struggles – marriage troubles, the stress of raising children, the difficulty of making ends meet, the demands of day-to-day work – but magnified a hundredfold. It’s the type of testimony that NGOs and workers’ rights organisations are used to taking and hearing (they are kept very busy by the garment industry in Bangladesh), and occasionally try to communicate to the rest of us. It’s the type of testimony that usually falls on deaf ears. We’re not usually interested in such humdrum detail about globalised trade – not when we have our own relationships, children, jobs and money worries to think about.

Since I came face-to-face with the human side of the fashion supply chain, I’ve made little secret of the fact that I think the fashion industry must reform urgently, especially as it is those way down the chain being paid peanuts – the garment workers in free trade hotspots such as Bangladesh – who are carrying all the risk. And the scale and nature of that risk has been evident for a long time. Those campaigning for change had warned that Rana Plaza was the proverbial accident waiting to happen. Not, of course, that you would have to wait long in the garment industry for an accident to happen.

When the Rana Plaza building fell, it shone a harshly critical light on the fast fashion promise that we can have whatever we want, at speed, in bulk and at unprecedentedly low prices. The question it has left behind for all of us, from consumer to CEO, is what are we going to do about it? Can we give up a model that keeps the shopper effortlessly up to date with fashion trends, while filling the pockets of the businesses that have built it?

The many labour unions and workers’ rights groups, which populate the fringes of the fashion industry and agitate for change at different levels, would rather we had listened to the garment workers earlier. Perhaps, though, in the aftermath of what should be seen as fashion’s greatest tragedy some change will finally come. Many of the brands appear to be shifting their position on the role they play on the factory floors of Dhaka. Whereas previous accidents in the fashion supply chain were met with a certain amount of obfuscation, the sheer scale of the Rana Plaza disaster has led some big brands to raise their hands and admit an extent of responsibility – if not for the deaths, then for what happens next.

A few days after Rana Plaza falls, and Sam Maher, of UK NGO Labour Behind the Label, has by her own admission, not had time to sit down since the disaster. Already, despite the freshness of the catastrophe (survivors were still being pulled from the rubble) and the post-disaster chaos on the ground in Bangladesh, she is frantically working with colleagues to get the brands, government officials and garment worker representatives around a table. Even at that point, in those first muddled days, the inference was clear: something good needed to come from Rana Plaza. This could not happen again. ‘You can’t lose that many people from the planet and say it doesn’t matter,’ she told me.

We Are What We Wear explores the efforts to generate some good from the tragedy. It is a complicated process, riven with vested interests. Both within and outside the industry there seems to be an embarrassment of riches when it comes to innovations and schemes to reform the global wardrobe. Unfortunately, this is matched by a surfeit of internecine battles over the directions of reform. There is a danger that the legacy will be swamped by economists, supply chain rationalists and Harvard MBA consultants with a technical panacea, and often a profit-based solution. This Guardian Short also follows the convoluted supply chain from cotton field to clothing factory, across the ocean aboard vast ships, before an item winds up in a high street shop with an irresistible price tag on it.

My colleague Jason Burke, the Guardian’s South Asia correspondent and a veteran observer of the region, spent weeks in Savar and Dhaka speaking to officials and to factory owners, to survivors of the collapse, those dragged from the rubble, to bereaved relatives. He also spent many hours in garment factories that are currently operational, talking to those who run them, and those who work in them. For all the earnest efforts required to bring change to the fashion world, it is for these people, the workers for whom the garment industry currently represents the best hope of a better future, that real reform must be done.

At the risk of searching too hard for a silver lining in the dust cloud that hung over Savar for weeks after the event, the Rana Plaza catastrophe has given us one thing: a moment where collectively we listened to the dying and rescued workers. For a brief moment we heard their stories.

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