Shoppers on Madrid’s exclusive Gran Via were recently confronted with an unsettling sight: three women, adorned with designer bags and shoes, buried in rubble.
The women were part of artist Yolanda Dominguez’s latest installation entitled “Fashion Victims.” Inspired by the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse that killed more than 1,000 workers in April, Dominguez aimed to confront shoppers with the human toll of their fast-fashion habits.
"The real fashion victims are not celebrities, but anonymous workers in poor conditions, in polluted countries," Dominguez told NPR. "The images I saw [from Bangladesh] in the media of the limbs of the dead people under the rubble struck me so much, and I wanted to reproduce them."
The Rana Plaza factory collapse has indeed shone a harsh spotlight on the conditions under which thousands labor to satisfy a largely Western appetite for cheap clothes. In May, Spanish companies, including the parent companies for Zara and Mango, and the Swedish giant H&M signed unprecedented fire and safety building agreements for manufacturing sites in Bangladesh.
But, beyond the retailers’ own culpability, what is the responsibility of the consumer him or herself? Consumers can, after all, vote with their dollars by choosing not to patronize certain retailers. But how can consumers be motivated to take such action?
Dominguez is certainly not the first artist or activist to bring attention to the human toll of the harvesting, manufacturing, and transport of certain consumer goods. Perhaps most prominently, the uproar regarding “Blood Diamonds” led to larger public awareness of the role of natural resource exploitation in armed conflicts throughout the world.
The jewelry industry itself adopted a questionably effective process to halt international trade of conflict diamonds. Meanwhile, organizations like Global Witness and Human Rights Watch continue to underline the link between human rights abuses and natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals, and to launch campaigns to harness public action and outrage around these issues.
However, consumers of luxury goods like diamonds and gold are probably a different sort than consumers of more quotidian goods such as clothes, smart phones, and, yes, illegal drugs. To reach more “typical” consumers, a different approach is likely needed.
For example, recent efforts have been made to highlight the connection between drug consumption in the U.S. and Mexico’s drug war. And there have been some hiccups: successful performing artist Mike Daisy, who launched a prominent attack on Apple and its labor abuses in China, was exposed as a fraud after admitting to exaggerating and fabricating some of his most moving anecdotes.
Still, are creative, “guerrilla” installations by artists like Yolanda Dominguez the future of consumer-targeted activism? Quite possibly — if you believe in the power of human empathy.
As one model in Dominguez’s installation said, “It produced a shock in people's daily lives — but a necessary one.”