The Story Behind A Harvest of Thorns

On November 24, 2012, a fire swept through the Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 117 workers, mostly young women, and injuring hundreds more. Before the dust had settled, a public-img_4397relations battle broke out between the media and Walmart, the world’s largest retailer. Despite an attempt by the factory owner to shutter the site, the press confirmed that clothes destined for Walmart stores were inside the factory at the time of the fire. Walmart, however, claimed that Tazreen was no longer an authorized supplier and blamed another supplier for subcontracting orders without its approval. When I read this in the news, it made no sense. How could a sophisticated global business like Walmart have no idea where its clothes were actually being made?

In the spring of 2015, I traveled around the world to find an answer to this question. In Bangladesh, I met a group of img_4390Tazreen survivors not far from the burned-out factory. The stories they told me were some of the most painful I have ever heard. They haunt me still. When I asked them who they were making for that night, they were unequivocal–Walmart. They knew the labels and the buyers. They told me Walmart’s buyer was in the factory on the day of the fire. Yet, as I came to learn, fashion buyers often operate independently of the brands they represent. Given the extraordinary complexity of international apparel sourcing, Walmart’s direct supplier may very well have subcontracted the order to Tazreen without the company’s permission.

I came away from my visit with more questions than answers. I traveled to Malaysia and Jordan, New York and Los Angeles, and talked to long list of experts and stakeholders in the world of fashion—garment workers, factory owners, auditors, buying agents, journalists, lawyers, activists, and academics. I wanted to understand how clothes destined for stores my family and I shop in could be made under such awful conditions, and then, when disaster struck, disavowed by the brands whose labels were on them.

In my research, I learned something disturbing. Most of the clothing offered for sale in North America and Europe comesimg_4283 from what one expert called the “Independent Republic of Global Supply Chains,” which means that nobody really knows how it is made or by whom or under what conditions. It’s possible that the sweater I’m wearing right now was made by a slave. My shirt could have been made in a sweatshop by a young teenager working eighty-hour weeks. My pants could have been made by a girl whose manager raped her. My shoes might have been made in a factory about to collapse or erupt in flames. As consumers, we’re in the dark. And so are the brands we trust. Or so they claim. A number of people with deep insight into the industry told me that the brands know more than they let on.

The challenge of modern fashion has many dimensions. All of the players–investors, brands, consumers, and governments–face confounding dilemmas pitting self-interest against the moral imperative of social responsibility. Governments are heavily influenced by business. Business has to satisfy investors and consumers. Investors care about profit and growth. And consumers want more for less. By the end of my journey, I realized that to transform the fashion industry will require a paradigm shift in society. We need to replace the culture of fast fashion and disposable styles with a culture of slow fashion and ethical purchasing. The business model itself is in need of a makeover. Only then will the people who make our clothes–and the natural environments impacted by their work–be treated with the dignity they deserve.