4.24.2013: A deadly tragedy and my journey to action

Rana Plaza Complex and the fashion revolution

My heart is heavy today.

Tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of when the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed. The 1,134 deaths that day highlighted the injustice of the fast fashion industry. It was a watershed moment in my own journey as a consumer and, later, as an entrepreneur.

But the story began on the eve of the anniversary. In fact, it began when the existing building - intended for shops and offices, not factories - took on the burden of four new floors, without a permit and against warnings from architects. These floors would house garment factories with heavy, vibrating machinery. When the building showed signs of crumbling on April 23rd, it was evacuated.

But on the 24th, over 3,000 garment workers returned to work. Why? They had no worker rights. They could lose pay, or lose their job, if they did not obey. Some had to bring in their children to the on-site nursery.

They relied on their job but did not have the basic human right to choose their safety over their employers' orders.

When the building collapsed that morning, it was "the deadliest structural failure accident in modern human history" according to Wikipedia. And these deaths were entirely preventable.

Why did the managers pressure their employees to come to work? So they could make clothing for people like you and me. Clothing that exploits the planet and its people so that the tight timelines, and vast quantities, demanded by fast fashion are met. This is why April 24, 2013 was a pivotal moment for me. It drove me to pay attention to who was making my clothes (and my jewelry, and so much more).

I remember weeping over the headlines on April 24. I remember how the events of the 23rd stood out to me in the news stories. This wasn't some natural disaster. It was a disaster that showcases the human cost when corporate greed and consumer demand dehumanize those who create our clothes, who are trying to provide for their families. The cost when there isn’t transparency in the complex supply chains that end with us.

A calling to go deeper

As I looked for ways to become a part of the solution, I found that I really had fun identifying and supporting brands that had amazing products while valuing transparent business practices. I started making switches I felt good about (a journey I’m still on). But I felt a tugging that went beyond my own consumer decisions. I felt called to engage other consumers in action through my career somehow. I didn't know what that would look like. I was at home with a 2.5 year old son and a 5-month-old daughter when the disaster happened, and wasn't looking to return to work any time soon. But I spent the following couple of years wanting to discern what I could do. I wanted to raise awareness of how fashion can either be a place of exploitation, or a tool of empowerment and social change. I wanted to showcase that as consumers, we can vote with our dollars for the latter.

I was fortunate, in 2016, to learn about Noonday Collection. It was the kind of company I wanted to support as a consumer, with both products and practices I loved. It even went far beyond “do no harm” - rather, it sought to truly use business as a vehicle for social change in vulnerable communities, with an emphasis on poverty eradication, orphan prevention, trafficking prevention and aftercare, and more.

But even though I knew women could join as Ambassadors, the thought of joining honestly did not occur to me. I just wanted to purchase, or better yet host a trunk show, as a chance to invite my friends to join me and purchase with impact. When I saw there was no Ambassador within an hour of me, I was super bummed. I thought about asking one to make the trip, but I remember first spending a couple of days thinking what a shame it was for Noonday not to have a strong presence in Madison, wishing someone would step up...before realizing I could be that someone. (Facepalm.) The calling I had felt for years toward the ethical consumerism space, the way I couldn’t get Noonday off my mind, it all suddenly clicked into place. Even though I hadn't expected this calling to lead me to sales, I realized sales is an incredibly important part of creating change, and a sweet opportunity to engage consumers with their own ability to create a better world. To show them they're not too small to make a difference, and that they can do it in a way that's fun and stylish and beautiful.

So I timidly stepped in, and am so glad I did. My vision is to increase consumer demand for ethically made goods. My vision is to showcase how we can purchase things that are fun and beautiful and make us feel amazing, and create social change, *at the same time.* My vision is also to offer other women the joy of running their own social impact businesses, to bless them and to further expand the movement.

So friends, if you've ever wondered why this math geek is now selling jewelry, and happier and more driven than ever, that's why.

Fashion Revolution week: How will you take action?

I invite you to join me today and tomorrow to mourn the Rana Plaza disaster, and to grow in awareness. But awareness is useless unless we take the next step toward action. So let's pause to mourn, and then get to work. Here are a few ideas.

in Vietnam with Noonday’s founder, Jessica Honegger, as well as entrepreneur Lanh and a few of her employees. They create jewelry for Noonday, with safe work, great wages, cultural preservation, and more at the heart of the business.

in Vietnam with Noonday’s founder, Jessica Honegger, as well as entrepreneur Lanh and a few of her employees. They create jewelry for Noonday, with safe work, great wages, cultural preservation, and more at the heart of the business.

  • The “Fashion Revolution” was born when the Rana Plaza Building collapsed, and asks the vital question, “Who made my clothes?” Read their site, which outlines the social and environmental harm of fast fashion. Every year, Fashion Revolution week marks the Rana Plaza anniversary and encourages consumer action.

  • Please, don’t dwell on the purchases you’ve made - or continue to make - that you learn don’t align with your values. I certainly spent some time feeling guilt and shame around this. Instead, simply commit to do better, remembering that small changes are best. As I often say, we have to move from awareness into action, but unfortunately we can get stuck on a middle step of overwhelm, apathy, or shame. None of which accomplish anything. So find one switch you can make toward ethical purchasing and do it.

  • Become familiar with the principles of Fair Trade and B Corps. Certified FT and B Corps businesses are great to support, and by knowing these principles, you’ll also be equipped to know what to look for in other businesses that may not have the certifications.

  • Listen to this podcast episode from Molly Stillman about how to know if a brand is ethical. FT and B Corp status are great indicators, but there are certainly brands without these extensive certifications that are nonetheless awesome to support with your consumer dollars. Molly breaks down how to reach out to companies to ask them tough questions and push for change.

  • Choose one place to start. Since this is Fashion Revolution Week, consider what your next clothing or accessory purchase will be. Is it a Mother’s Day gift? A new pair of jeans? Clothes for your kids? I of course highly recommend Noonday, a certified B Corp and member of the Fair Trade Federation, for all your accessories - and you can find other great brands to support in Molly Stillman’s directory here, and LeeAnne McCoy’s directory here.

  • Purchasing isn’t the only way to fight against fast fashion. Repairing items rather than tossing them, buying secondhand, and disposing of pieces responsibly are all important as well. Read more about ethical fashion here.

  • Invite your friends to create change too. Share with them about great brands you discover that they’ll love. Host a Noonday trunk show; it’s a simple and fun way to invite your friends to find beautiful, stylish accessories that allow them to create a better world. Shows can be in person if you’re local, or online if you’re not. (Click here to learn more, or if you already have another Ambassador, contact her.)

  • If the idea of having a flexible, socially responsible business and engaging others in this important topic gets your heart racing like it did mine, join me. I’ll coach you every step of the way. I know we’ll have so much fun together. Or, again, if you already have an Ambassador, contact her!

A year ago, I was in Vietnam around Fashion Revolution week, where I got to meet the people who make our accessories. They proudly held up signs from Fashion Revolution saying “We Made Your Jewelry.” It was such a full-circle moment, five years after the headlines first appeared, to reflect on how much is still left to be done…but also on how much I’ve been able to do. I say this not to pat myself on the back, but to emphasize that all of us - you and me both - can do something, and it matters.

Comment below: what will your next step be?

Wherever you are on your journey, don’t stop learning, and don’t stop sharing.