As more and more people are arrested over the horrible neglect that led to so many deaths in the Bangladesh factories, one can't help but think of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911, and wonder how much has changed.
As if in answer to my thoughts, I turned on BBC news and was surprised to hear a familiar voice -- my old friend, Mark Bloom, aka Joe Komodo, owner of Komodo Fashions. Mark was being interviewed on how he approached factory safety in his businesses around the globe.
I haven't seen Mark for years, but I've always admired his initiative and moxie. When my friend Andy's father encouraged Mark to travel the world, he did that. When he further encouraged to him to consider what was then called the rag trade, Mark did and made it his own. He travelled to exotic places, found amazing designers and fabrics and created the company named after his favorite dragon, Komodo. He gave himself a moniker, Joe Komodo, and got involved with the Green Movement and Tibetan politics early on. He even took Joe Komodo to Machu Picchu to plant a flag for peace.
I don't think Mark's companies are much like the New Wave Bottoms and New Wave Style factories in Bangladesh. Firstly, they're smaller and he's making products with hemp and organic materials, so the whole esthetic is probably different. After all, Mark set up the Komodo label in 1988, with the specific aims of designing ethical clothes, and creating employment in developing countries. As a serious traveler he got to know local design communities and always tried to employ from the region, creating a sort of grassroots industry. He made beautiful clothing in Bali and Kathmandu. Today I still wear my Komodo fleece vest with Free Tibet on the collar.
Certainly there are tenets that all size companies should try to adhere to. "First, don't drive prices so low that that the price is being paid by the impoverishment of people in third world", Mark said to the reporter from BBC."
"Of course, it may be said, that it's easier to work as a small or medium sized business, but big brands have ample resources to foster relationships with their real suppliers, but often choose to work thru agents," he told to me when I caught up with him. "They engage in sharp practices and give up responsibility for where and how their products are made. It's not good, it's not fair or right and it can and should change."
Well fair enough, but how? "Well, if the big brands are not going to seize this watershed moment to sign up for change, then our governments should update import regulations to enforce better standards. We can see clearly now from the various images of Bangladesh and beyond is that we have in some way allowed our rampant desire for ever cheaper unsustainable garments to create an underclass whose conditions and rights are akin to slavery."
I interviewed Mark a few years back in a film about Malcolm McLaren's campaign to run for London's first mayor. (Malcolm McLaren - Not For Sale). Both Mark and Malcolm had fashion in common, both innovative in style and distribution. Certainly the label has much to do with the status of a piece of clothing, fabric but also, where and how it is made.
So I wasn't surprised when it came down to politics. "Are we going to keep looking away?" Mark questioned. "Now is the time to campaign for a major overhaul of this gigantic industry that's quite evidently getting away with murder !"