Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities. —Pope Francis
Western media often turns a blind eye toward problems in the East, but as radical acts of terrorism continue to grow around the world the effect comes closer to impacting our own lives every day. For fashion, one of the most critical areas of the world is Bangladesh. Only China assembles more clothing than the many garment factories here. Over 4 million people are employed in the nation’s garment industry, making it a critical economic element. We’ve expressed concern about conditions in Bangladesh before, but now matters are more critical.
Last month, terrorists attacked a cafe in Dhaka. Twenty people were killed. Among those were two Italians with connections to the fashion industry. Seven Japanese were also killed in the attack, some of whom were there on fashion business. Almost immediately, buyers started canceling trips to the city. Retail brands began calling their staffs back home. The ripple effect sent shivers throughout the Bangladesh garment industry.
Terrorism is not new here, nor in any of the Asian countries struggling to pull themselves from Third World status. Recent attacks, however, have given international companies reason to worry more about the safety of their employees. Employees are worrying more about the safety of simply trying to get to work of the morning. As fashion’s buyers become more reluctant to visit the impact to the fashion industry begins to grow.
Reason To Be Concerned
This time last year, terrorism was a topic whispered carefully in backrooms. While care was taken to keep presentation venues safe, no one was willing to admit that any direct efforts were made to prevent any kind of attack. Then, a Paris nightclub was hit. That act of terrorism shook one of fashion’s most important cities to its core. People wanted to know that attending fashion events would be safe. No one wants to be a victim.
Since then, another attack in Paris as well as attacks in Brussels, another city with strong fashion connections, has put the topics of terrorism and security at the front of fashion discussions. As we mentioned a couple of days ago, event organizers in all four major cities have dramatically increased their security plans for this fall’s shows. Every effort will be made to keep those security factors in the background, though. No one is planning on having armed troops standing at the doors.
For garment workers in Bangladesh, those armed troops might be a welcome sight. The rise of terrorism in that country has thrown everything into turmoil and created questions about the safety of both garment workers and retailer’s representatives in the country. Should workers begin to feel unsafe going to work, production could see a significant decrease. If buyers refuse to travel to the country, orders decline. Without retailer’s representatives keeping an eye on factories, working conditions are likely to deteriorate again. There is a lot that could be lost.
Everyone Is Affected
For those of us in the US especially, it is still very easy to dismiss terrorism when it occurs elsewhere in the world. Yes, we “Stand With Paris,” and sympathize with Brussels, but beyond the reach of social media, we don’t see those events touching our daily lives. Our stores are still full, our prices are still low. We’re happy and completely oblivious to the dangers others face. That naivitè may be short-lived, however.
Start with the very fabrics necessary to create clothes. Much of the weaving and looming of natural fabrics is done in places where terrorism is nearly a daily occurrence, from Afghanistan to the Sudan to Third World parts of Asia. Here, terrorism threatens to disrupt the supply chain, keeping Western visitors out while preventing textile factories from being able to run at full production. As production falls, prices begin to increase.
Then, when assembly factories such as those in Bangladesh are affected, the very availability of clothes is threatened. Fast fashion retailers such as H&M are especially vulnerable to terrorism as disruptions both in ordering and supply chain threatens the regular arrival of new clothes on their store floors. Inevitable price increases threaten the already razor-thin margins that allow discount retailers to stay profitable. Another major disruption could cause holiday profits to disappear with price increases.
Anytime terrorism raises its ugly head we face the question as to how to appropriately respond. Corporate statements carry little weight as they are carefully crafted so as to not offend anyone or commit to anything that might affect their bottom line. Individuals assume that there’s nothing they can do beyond keeping victims “in their thoughts and prayers.” We leave it up to governments to handle the official response and assume they’ll do the right thing.
They don’t. Towns in France that ban Burkinis, Muslim swimwear that keeps a woman fully covered, are only adding to the problem, not solving it. Terrorism thrives on recruiting disaffected and marginalized people who feel betrayed by the society and government of which they long to be a part. Any time we respond in fear, any time we limit the rights of any marginalized group, we are feeding terrorism. The not-quite-under-your-breath remark made when passing someone wearing a turban helps feed terrorism. Getting Arab-looking people tossed off airplanes just because of their appearance is feeding terrorism. Supporting xenophobic politicians threatening to ban entry to the United States is feeding terrorism.
Higher prices and fewer choices are the price we will ultimately pay for terrorism against the fashion industry. With the luxury market already taking some severe hits the past two years, any additional decline could see retailers cutting back on inventory, orders dropping, labels making cuts, quality suffering, and prices jumping dramatically. What we say and how we treat people can have a much larger effect than we realize.
Terrorism isn’t going to stop overnight. More attacks will happen. Much of what happens we cannot prevent no matter what we do. Power-mad ideological extremists don’t employ reason when determining their actions. We can keep those attacks from changing how we respond to people, though. We must care more about people now than we ever have. Fashion is good at caring. We just need to emphasize those actions a lot more.