By Max McMeeken
While it may not be an object to define the genesis of the Anthropocene, a collapsed contemporary textile factory is the perfect encapsulation of the forces that constitute the Anthropocene. Specifically, modern textile factories in Bangladesh speak towards the Anthropocene. The textile factories of Bangladesh are notorious for harsh and dangerous working conditions as well as collapsing and killing people. The fashion industry which these factories serve is responsible for a large portion of modern environmental damage associated with water pollution and carbon emissions. Textile factories in Bangladesh not only speak towards human influence on the environment and the climate characteristic of the Anthropocene, but also towards the relationships between global markets, labor, and the environment. Examining the circumstances of a collapsed textile factory and the fashion industry reveals how in the contemporary anthropogenic moment, the environment, people’s lives, and their labor have been cheapened by the demands and processes of market forces.
Textile factories of Bangladesh are the modern backbone of the fashion industry, but it is important to understand the context of textile manufacture. The fashion industry may be worth an estimated $2.4 trillion as of 2016, but the fashion industry recognizable today only really took off with the Industrial Revolution of England in the 18th century. Mechanization greatly increased the production and spinning of cotton, but that meant that labor was needed in order to assemble textiles into clothing. Before the Industrial
Revolution, clothing production was time-consuming as well as handcrafted and maintained. After the Industrial Revolution, a rift was created between products and consumers. As the fashion industry took off, so did the desire for cheap, new, and replaceable clothing.
The modern clothing industry is very illustrative of how in the contemporary anthropogenic moment people’s labor and the environment have been “cheapened” in order to meet global demands. The concept of cheapness comes from scholars Jason Moore and Raj Patel, which they describe as the violent mobilization of human, animal, botanical, and geological work with as little compensation as possible. These two scholars prefer the term Capitalocene over Anthropocene to describe the new proposed geological epoch because they view capitalism not just as a market system of how labor and money are exchanged, but as a world ecology which has cheapened nature, money, food, care, work, energy, and lives. In other words, cheapness is the defining mode of exchanges of the Anthropocene.
A collapsed textile factory in Bangladesh as the physical manifestation of the fashion industry is illustrative of the human-environment relationships of the Anthropocene for how it represents the cheapening of nature in the Anthropocene. Modern consumers demand cheap and new clothing, and the fashion industry provides this at the expense of the environment.
Based on global average, the number of times an item of clothing is worn before it is thrown away has decreased by 36% in the last 15 years as clothing sales are expected to triple by 2050 based on current trends. The high turnover of clothing equates to increased production, which equates to increased carbon emissions. Most global clothing production takes place in India, China, and Bangladesh, countries which rely heavily on coal, which is considered
the dirtiest form of energy in terms of carbon emissions. The production of textiles produced 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2015. Not only does anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming, but increased CO2 damages soil. The fashion industry is not only a large polluter of carbon dioxide but it is also the 2nd largest polluter of clean water behind agriculture. As consumers demand an extensive range of colors in their clothing, the dyes used to meet this demand are destroying the environment. There have been at least 72 toxic chemicals identified in water from textile dying alone, and 30 of these dyes are irremovable. These chemicals notoriously make saltwater and freshwater cloudy, affect the transfer of oxygen to water, clog the pores of farming soils, erode pipes, as well as evaporate into the air. Cloudy and un-oxidized water hiders the ability of underwater photosynthesis and overall underwater ecosystem health. Clogged pores of soil negatively affect the productive capacity of the soil, and the erosion of pipes leads to unsafe drinking water. Finally, when these chemicals are evaporated into the air, they can be absorbed by people’s skin and cause a variety of rashes and diseases. The health of marine environments, the production of crops, and the ability to drink clean water without the risk of contracting airborne illnesses have all been compromised by the fashion industry. The demands of production have overridden the harms to the environment as well as people’s ability to use the environment.
The cheapening of nature from the fashion industry involves the cheapening of lives, and this is no more evident than in Savar, Bangladesh. In 2013, 11-year-old Golam Rabbi attended a school surrounded by two garment factories and two clothing dyeing operations. Golam told the NY times that “the school always smells,” that “sometimes we can’t even eat,”
and the pollution “is making some kids sick.” Golam expressed that at school he can’t concentrate and has often fainted from the smell of the pollution. Mohammed Abdul Kader, Savar’s mayor in 2013 stated that the pollution problems from the fashion industry are not only affecting Savar but that “the whole country is suffering from pollution.” As evident by the inability to learn and focus at school, the lives of Bangladeshi children are being cheapened by the fashion industry. The pollution issues of Bangladesh are characteristic of how in the Anthropocene at large, people’s ability to flourish in their surroundings has been compromised by the fashion industry.
To move beyond the cheapening of nature and lives to the cheapening of labor, the object to illustrate the Anthropocene is not only a textile factory but specifically a collapsed textile factory in Bangladesh. As labor movements in the developed world through the 19th and 20th century established safety standards to protect workers, sweatshop production shifted to the developing world. In Bangladesh, the textile industry boomed in the 80s and accounted for 52 percent of total national exports by 1993; however, safety standards have been extremely lacking which allows the fashion industry to exploit people for their labor. For example, in 2013 the eighty-story textile factory in Bangladesh called the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring about 2,500 more. Tahmina Akhter Sadia, a child laborer of the Rana Plaza and a survivor of the collapse told CBS that she “didn’t want to go into the factory that morning… because (she had) already seen cracks in the walls. But the supervisor slapped (her) face and forced (her) to go inside.” Had workers been unionized, they might have had the power to fight for their safety; however, unionization is highly suppressed. Hosne Ara Fahima told CBS how when her late husband
Aminul Islam encouraged workers to form unions and fight for better conditions, the bosses of his garment factory sent thugs to threaten him. Later, he disappeared and was found dead two days later with smashed kneecaps and broken toes. Fahima believes he was murdered by corrupt police paid by factory owners, stating that “if you try to help workers in Bangladesh…you make enemies.” Bangladeshi textile laborer’s lives and productive capacity are being treated with the same expendable nature as the clothing they are producing. As CEO’s of fashion corporations make millions of dollars annually, textile laborers in Bangladesh make 25 cents an hour or less. Textile workers are subjugated to life-threatening working conditions and poverty wages in order to create clothing that is barely worn. The death, destruction, and circumstances of a collapsed textile factory speak directly to global income disparities and worker rights suppression that is central to understanding the cheapening of labor in the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene is not just a moment of human invention or pollution, but it is a time where markets demanding relentless production have exploited labor, lives, and the environment all while distancing themselves from the consequences. A collapsed textile factory in Bangladesh is the physical manifestation of the tragedy of the Anthropocene. While people in the developed world enjoy shopping for the latest fashion trends, Bangladeshi textile workers die in order to contribute to an industry they had no role in creating nor a role in benefitting from. Laborers who survive work for poverty wages and face the local and global environmental burdens of capitalist demands. The clothing industry exemplifies the complete carelessness, cheapness, and expendable treatment of lives and the environment by those who seek to maximize profits and have products as cheaply as possible.
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