While most of the candidates for Women's Wear Daily's "Newsmaker of the Year" were trendsetting designers or risk-taking execs at fashion houses or retailers, the winner for 2013 was the Bangladeshi Apparel Worker.
In writing up its selection, WWD said that last April's building collapse at Rana Plaza in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka, that killed 1,132 workers, "stirred a global outcry and raised a fundamental question: What is the human price of cheap fashion?"
News of shabby working conditions and accidents — including a factory fire six months earlier that killed 112 workers — had been circulating for some time as the region quickly became the second largest apparel producer. But the Rana Plaza tragedy appeared to singularly put sweatshop issues back in the media's spotlight for the first time since 1996, when Kathie Lee Gifford apparel, headed to Walmart, was found to be made by child labor in Honduras.
The blame for Rana Plaza spread from local government corruption to greedy factory owners but also to manufacturers and retailers choosing to source from the country despite its poor track record of safety and labor abuses.
Albeit amid fits of violence over working conditions, progress is reportedly being made. Two groups — one European-based, another led by unions and major U.S. retailers — have set legally enforceable working standards in the region. A recent agreement lifted the country's minimum wage and factory owners are said to be doing a better job addressing safety and worker's rights.
In December, four retailers — Bonmarché, El Corte Inglés, Loblaw and Primark — pledged to contribute to an estimated $40 million compensation fund for the Rana Plaza victims' families. Others are being criticized for not contributing but are said to be reluctant due to possible legal culpability.
Some reports on the Rana Plaza aftermath explore why major investments in oversight and establishing standards since the Kathie Lee Gifford incident are failing to prevent such tragedies.
Another front page article in The New York Times on New Years Eve exploring "the cost of global demands for cheap, fast factories" points out that the pressures are not only around low prices but also fast turnaround with "consumers expecting to see new things every time they visit a store."
"Consumers know little about these factories, even as global brands promise that their clothes are made in safe environments," the Times article stated.
How concerned are American consumers about "human price of cheap fashion?"