On 24 April 2013, the day the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,130 people, Matalan posted a picture of two sun-dappled models to its Instagram account. The photograph was published to promote the brand’s new range of linens. In it, one model wears a lace shirt, which costs £12. Her partner’s shorts are similarly priced, a fraction less than her £18 mesh jumper. All the choices you could need for summer.

As the accompanying blog post reminds Matalan’s customers, “Payday isn’t too far off and this Thursday 24th signals our new mailer treats, just in time for the weekend.” An entire outfit, available for less than lunch. As they stroll along a white sand beach, the women in the photograph look suitably pleased with their bargains.

It is a photograph at odds with the pictures of women the same age – many of them mothers – whose bodies, bleached white by dust, were at the same moment being pulled from the rubble of Rana Plaza, a factory complex where Matalan had manufactured product samples. Many of those women left limbs behind in the wreckage, hacked off by saw-wielding volunteers, without anaesthetic, because the rubble that crushed their arms and legs was either too heavy, or too precariously balanced, to move. Their choice was between a life spent struggling to survive, or certain death.

The day before, those women had evacuated the eight-storey building when a TV news report highlighted cracks in the facade. A bank on the ground floor decided that conditions were dangerous and ordered staff to stay home the next day. Managers for the textile companies on the upper floors disagreed, telling reporters that the building was safe and their employees should report to work in the morning. When the women protested, their bosses reminded them of an impending deadline for an important Western client. They threatened to withhold a month’s pay from anyone who disobeyed.

The collapsed Rana Plaza building in Dhaka in 2013Rescuers work through the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza textile factory in Dhaka, in 2013

There were more than 3,000 people in the building the next morning when the power went out. This was not uncommon in Dhaka, a city of 16 million whose infrastructure can’t compete with the influx of immigrants looking for work, where buildings mushroom with little care for construction codes. As they did every day, four diesel generators on the top floor kicked in to get the sewing machines running. Each sent vibrations through the cheap concrete that the building’s owner, Sohel Rana, had bribed officials to rubber stamp as safe when he’d erected it without planning permission.

The shaking spread the cracks through the walls and central pillars. Workers eyed them nervously. Roughly 10 minutes after the generators fired up, the seventh floor began to tear apart. One corner shifted, collapsing onto the people below. Slabs of concrete sandwiched hundreds of garment workers as they rushed away from their sewing machines and into dark, crowded stairwells. After 90 seconds, the building settled into its new plane. Eight stories became three. Of those 3,000 workers, mostly women, many were still inside. Their children were also buried, on what had once been the third, seventh, and eighth floors, in creches the factory had provided so the women could work longer hours.

Ismail Ferdous saw the collapse on television. A documentary photographer who lives in Dhaka, his previous work includes series on Bangladesh’s HIV victims and communities that have been affected by global warming. He grabbed his camera and took a rickshaw to Rana Plaza. When the roads became gridlocked, he walked the final two kilometres.

Screams told him he was close. Then he saw the bodies, a few wrapped in white sheets, others being carried to the waiting ambulances on makeshift stretchers. Some had bloody stumps where hands should be. Others, bone and gore instead of faces.

A dead couple embraces in the rubble of Rana PlazaPhoto Credit: Ismail Ferdous

When he arrived, he didn’t know how best to help. “The building was so big, but the damage was from every side, every corner of Rana Plaza.” Volunteers had repurposed bolts of fabric as slides, to free the people trapped on the upper stories. In the midday sun, the bright orange and azure cloth seemed to shine against the shattered concrete.

Ferdous began to clear rubble, trembling as he worked, occasionally stopping to photograph what lay beneath the rock and twisted steel. “One girl, her whole body was stuck under the rubble,” he recalls. “I couldn’t see her face but I could see her long hair hanging on one side of a wall. She was snapped by the rubble. Her one hand was at a [strange] angle. Her hair was hanging from one side of the wall.”

At around half past seven that first evening, a pair of volunteers saw his camera and asked him to follow them to a different part of the site. They led him up a small slope then pointed to a gap in the rock. In the darkness, flanked by piles of clothes, he could see a pair of bodies, a man and a woman, in a final embrace. The woman’s face was hidden, her body bent back. The man’s arms encircled her waist, his eyes closed, his face white with powdered concrete.

“I wasn’t on an assignment, wasn’t shooting for anyone, but I felt like these pictures were important,” he says. “I stayed there until midnight, until my battery finished.”

Bangladesh is a country with few natural resources beyond its 160m people. And since it can’t export them, it puts them to work. Around 4m Bangladeshis were employed in the garment sector in 2012, the year before the Rana Plaza disaster, according to the International Labour Organization. In 2013, Bangladesh’s exports were worth $31bn; some $28bn of that, around 90 per cent of the total, was clothes, most sewn with Western logos.

It’s an industry that the country can’t afford to lose. In purely economic terms, the Bangladeshi garment business has been enormously successful. The proportion of Bangladesh’s population living below the poverty line dropped from 49 per cent to 32 per cent between 2000 and 2010, according to the World Bank. Average life expectancy has also risen precipitously, particularly for women, from 55 in 1982 to over 70 today. Much of that success is thanks to the boom in its textile exports, which has helped the country quadruple its GDP since it won independence from Pakistan in 1971.

In 2013, Bangladesh became the world’s second-biggest clothing producer, after China. “It has a huge ambition to be the biggest exporter of garments in the world,” says Debbie Coulter, head of programmes at the Ethical Trading Initiative. “By 2020, all indicators are that they’re going to overtake China.” But to achieve that goal it needs to pay its workers less than almost anywhere else on earth.

Bangladesh’s low labour costs have encouraged brands to move production there, since China’s booming middle class, improved worker conditions and a strengthening currency have made apparel more expensive to manufacture. A 2011 report, from consultants McKinsey & Company, found that 80 per cent of US and EU brands planned to relocate their production to factories in Bangladesh. Despite Rana Plaza, the country enjoyed record exports in 2015, and inches ever closer to that top spot.

Workers in a Bangladeshi clothing factoryWorkers sewing clothes in a Bangladeshi garment factory. The country will overtake China as the world’s largest clothing exporter by 2020

That’s good news for Westerners. The more clothes Bangladesh makes, the cheaper they get. The price of importing Bangladeshi-made clothes dropped by 40 per cent through the 2000s, partly thanks to a minimum wage that hovered around £25 a month. In 2013, in response to global outrage over the Rana Plaza disaster, the government increased minimum pay by 71 per cent. An apparent victory, but the Asia Floor Wage Alliance estimates that figure is still just a fifth of what a Bangladeshi needs to live with dignity.

This window dressing masks the fact that Bangladesh needs to keep wages low to stay attractive to Western manufacturers. The bulk of a garment’s cost is its raw materials; cotton prices have been trending upward over the last few years. “There have been huge problems due to droughts,” says Jacqueline Jackson, an account director at environmental consultancy Trucost. “That meant many companies, like Mulberry and H&M in 2011 to 2013, lost huge margins from their bottom line.”

But these rising prices aren’t reflected on the high street. And it’s Bangladesh’s wages that mean you can still buy a T-shirt for less than a coffee. In clothes production, the human cost is easiest to squeeze. Property prices, for the stores where the clothes are sold, are on an equally upward tick. The same for warehousing and distribution networks.

And yet somehow the price of clothing has dropped in the last two decades at an inflation-busting rate. As wages stagnate and house prices lock a generation out of property ownership, cheap fashion has made us all feel richer. And it’s cheaper because the people who make it have become the lowest cost in the supply chain.

At 8:57am, when the collapse began, a handful of wispy clouds were all that broke the blue sky. The concrete was already warming up and, as the sun climbed higher, it grew hot enough to burn. The rescue effort lasted three weeks, during which the daytime temperature averaged 31°C. “It was like a warzone,” says Ferdous. “The smell of the dead bodies was everywhere. In the rubble and on the people who lived around it. Every night I’d go home and my shirt would be full of the smell of death.”

Volunteers shouldered much of the early burden. Rescue teams couldn’t get through the traffic-jammed streets and, when they did finally arrive, many were afraid to enter. “They sent [the volunteers] in instead,” says Ferdous. “Those people are working inside for hours and hours. I met a young guy, 16 or so, and he hid from [his parents]. He was starting ninth grade and he escaped, didn’t tell his parents where he was going. He watched the collapse on TV and he came to help.”

Volunteers and rescue workers worked tirelessly to save those trapped beneath the rubbleThe army and fire services remove a body from the rubble. Over 1,300 people died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse

The first 72 hours were the most important. After that, the combination of trauma, heat and plunging oxygen levels drastically reduced the likelihood of finding survivors. But even as the death toll mounted, the rescuers would chance upon someone who’d beaten the odds. These wins boosted morale and made the constant returns to the dark, rot-stenched mausoleum easier to stomach. Without these volunteers, many of them also garment workers in neighbouring factories, who lived crammed into fast-erected apartment buildings that flanked them, the death toll would have been much higher.

On the fourth day, rescuers heard a woman’s muffled cries, saw her fingers jutting through a crack between two walls. Oxygen lines and water were funnelled down and the arduous task of trying to free her without setting off further collapses began. Her name was Shahina, a 32-year-old garment worker who begged for her young son as the fire service chipped away at the walls. She became a ray of hope amid the carnage, a sign of life the entire country rallied around.

Ferdous had gone home to rest but soon heard about the rescue attempt and drove to Rana Plaza, arriving just before 6am. The fire service had been working for two hours when he arrived, but before he could exit his vehicle Ferdous erupted in tears, as the stress of 90 hours in the wreckage broke over him. It was a while before he rallied his emotions and headed to the rescue site. “I waited six hours, eight hours. It took till eight o’clock. Fourteen hours and she’s still not out.”

Rescue workers pull survivors from the Rana Plaza wreckageRescue workers carry the final survivor from the Rana Plaza wreckage. Reshma Begum, a seamstress, survived 17 days buried in the rubble

The rescue team had fashioned a narrow crawl space, but even after Shahina had removed her clothes, it was still too narrow for her to fit through. Most of the concrete had been chipped away but now her escape was blocked by the steel rebar that was supposed to strengthen the concrete. After more than 20 hours of work, a volunteer engineer, Mohammad Kaikobad, descended into the tunnel to cut through the bars with an angle grinder.

The sparks, fuelled by the oxygen lines that were keeping Shahina alive, set fire to a pile of clothes. “They couldn’t rescue her,” says Ferdous, his voice still wavering at the memory three years later. “And also the volunteer died. [Ordinary] people lost their lives to save these people.”

After 17 days, a woman called Reshma emerged from the rubble, kept alive by dried food and bottled water. She was discovered just hours after the 1,000th body was pulled from the debris. Another 130 corpses followed. Reshma was the final survivor.

For the brands whose clothes were produced at Rana Plaza, the disaster was an unwelcome spotlight on their working practices. The opacity of the modern fashion supply chain makes tracking precisely what has been made where almost impossible, even for the brands involved. When your labels poke through rubble next to the twisted fingers that used to sew them on, those relationships snap into focus.

But even when confronted with this evidence, brands were still slow to respond. Benetton first denied any links, before eventually stumping up $1.6m in compensastion two years after the disaster (when contacted for comment, Benetton pointed FashionBeans towards a press release from April 2015 and its corporate sustainability pledge). Mango and US giant Wal-Mart were similarly slow to react, and though UK brand Matalan admitted to having some samples made at Rana Plaza a month before it collapsed, it said that because it hadn’t extended production, it wouldn’t pay the $3m protestors were demanding. Instead, the brand donated just £72,000 to an alternative relief fund (Matalan declined to comment for this article).

The Rana Plaza relief fund was benchmarked at $30m, a sum that would provide immediate relief, cover loss of earnings and pay for long-term medical care for those injured in the disaster. It took more than two years to reach that target, even then only through an anonymous donation, as brands dragged their feet and commissioned expensive reports that downplayed their culpability.

Protestors in Dhaka, Bangladesh, demand compensation for victims of the Rana Plaza building collapse on its second anniversaryProtestors in Dhaka, Bangladesh, demand compensation for victims of Rana Plaza on the disaster’s second anniversary, in 2015

In Western brands’ admittedly shaky defence, determining exactly how clothes are produced is notoriously difficult. Fast fashion, spearheaded by brands like Primark, Zara and H&M, has removed time and transparency from the fashion cycle. By honing supply chains and streamlining design time, high street brands can now take a piece of clothing from sketch to store in a matter of weeks. Where designer brands lead, they follow, replicating runway trends to get them on shelves quicker than the originals and at a fraction of the price.

The result is a fashion cycle that spins even quicker. Luxury labels, looking to outpace their emulators, produce more clothes, add more seasons, in an effort to stem the flow of their designs onto the high street. To compete, high street brands cut more fat from their supply chains, demand tighter deadlines from their suppliers. If a factory can’t meet the demand, it loses the contract and a competitor steps in.

This means that even factories which pass safety checks are often subcontracting work to manufacturers with no oversight at all. “Some of these big global supply chains have tens of thousands of suppliers and they can’t police everyone every day of the week,” says Coulter. And the demand for speed, at a low overhead, often outranks the demand for human rights.

“We know of, within the industry, brands whose buyers use factories that other people won’t because price is their absolute king,” says Lucy Siegle, a journalist who has covered the fashion industry’s sustainability issues for more than a decade. In 2015, she produced the documentary The True Cost, which explores the industry’s global impact . “They’re more alert to price than they are to factory conditions and human rights.” They have to be, because the fast fashion system demands rapid turnover, at retail prices that ease clothes’ transition from rails to landfill.

As fashion accelerates, so have our tastes. US consumers now buy five times as many items of clothing as they did in 1980, and the UK isn’t far behind. The average Westerner throws away almost 15kg of textiles a year. The cheapness of our clothing makes it tempting to simply discard pieces that previous generations would have repaired.

The way we make, buy and discard clothes has changed more in the last three decades than any other period in history. “We used to produce a lot more garments in the UK,” says Siegle. “They’d make a comfortable living, employ quite a few people – seamstresses, pattern cutters, had a good dye house. That infrastructure was really important. Then along came big brands and suddenly they were all about standardisation.” The industrialisation of fashion demanded uniformity. A misplaced buttonhole or dropped hem was unacceptable on a rack where every item had to look the same. “They couldn’t assure that. So we saw this shift of outsourcing to other countries.”

British seamstresses were skilled workers who could make entire garments from scratch. But in the new developing world factories, clothes are produced on a production line, which ensures standardisation and keeps costs low. At Rana Plaza, garment workers were arranged in rows of as many as 70 sewing machines. Each sewer was taught only one seam. Runners, often barely older than children, would grab the clothes from each station, once that seam was finished, and hustle them along to the next in the row.

A shirt with a Benetton label lies in the detritus of Rana PlazaA shirt with a Benetton label lies in the detritus of Rana Plaza

Luxury brands boast of their clothes being handmade, but in Bangladeshi factories, this process means even the cheapest T-shirts are all made by hand. “But it’s not empowering unless you know how to do more than one bit,” says Siegle. “It doesn’t give you any future. By the time they’re in their early thirties, they’re done.”

An argument regularly rolled out by the brands who manufacture in developing world factories is that they teach otherwise unemployed workers skills which help lift them out of poverty. But the skills they do learn are rarely transferable. Garment workers are often expected to complete 14-hour shifts, frequently until past midnight in order to satisfy the production demands of brands in Western time zones. These hours make it almost impossible to look after the children many of them work to support.

“They put themselves in danger to make cheap jeans for four or five years,” says Siegle. “They can’t save any money because they get ripped off on lodgings, don’t get paid on time, aren’t paid a living wage. Then at the end of it, they’re cast out and they go back to a village where they may not be welcome. Because no work’s been done on the ground to bolster women’s rights.”

The question of how to fix the system has few easy answers. The only point of consensus is that things need to change. In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, 200 brands signed up to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, including the Arcadia Group, Primark, and H&M. The five-year, legally binding agreement is designed to ensure brands take responsibility for the factories that produce the clothes they sell. Under the accord, brands are liable for building inspections and are obliged to foot the bill for any work to bring them up to code.

“Primark continues to participate in the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh,” a spokesperson from the brand told FashionBeans via email. “Work has focused on both structural integrity of buildings and fire safety, particularly on improving fire exits, ensuring that fire doors conform to international standards and that stairwells used as fire escapes are appropriately engineered, and that sprinkler systems are installed where needed.

“To assist with this and other civil engineering issues, Primark has employed its own expert civil engineer, as a member of the 12-strong Primark ethical team in Dhaka. The team also works with independent third-party engineering consultants. So far, Primark has carried out 297 structural surveys in Bangladesh.”

Queues outside Primark's first Paris storeShoppers queue for hours before the opening of a new Primark store in Paris, in 2014

H&M is equally willing to recognise the need for change. “The challenges we face in the countries where our products are manufactured are complex, and often difficult to address as an individual company,” says Catarina Midby, H&M’s UK and Ireland sustainability manager.

“H&M has been working proactively on environmental and social responsibility within the supply chain for more than 15 years so we definitely see it as our responsibility to work for social improvements. Crucially however, we believe that lasting, long-term improvement is dependent on collaborating with other brands, stakeholders and local governments.”

But it’s debatable how much impact the accord has had. Earlier this year, a report from a collection of advocacy groups, including the Clean Clothes Campaign, found that half of H&M’s 32 most strategic suppliers lacked adequate fire exits, and that all but one were behind schedule in making buildings safe. “More than two and a half years into the process of the Bangladesh Accord every single mandated repair at H&M’s suppliers should have already been completed,” said Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium, when the report was published. “However, the sad reality is that hardly any of H&M’s supplier factories in Bangladesh can be called safe.”

In the meantime, H&M has invested in a sustainability campaign, fronted by MIA, in which consumers can swap their old clothes for shopping vouchers. The aim is to recycle 1,000 tonnes of old clothing that would otherwise end up in landfill. But as Siegle wrote in The Guardian, “using publicly available figures and average clothing weights, it appears it would take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste. Meanwhile if 1,000 tons is recycled, that roughly equates to the same amount of clothes a brand of this size pumps out into the world in 48 hours.”

American Eagle #AerieMan CampaignM.I.A. is the face of H&M’s ‘Garment Collecting’ campaign

For Siegle, it’s a waste of time trying to find a greener equivalent for fast fashion. “Is there a way of buying transparent and ethical clothing, at the high street price, with the convenience? No,” she says. “Ethical fashion and sustainable style isn’t about finding an analogue for fast fashion. That’s not possible. There’s some behavioural change that’s needed with consumers.”

Quite what form that change should take is unclear. Opaque supply chains make it impossible to discern whether a ‘Made In Cambodia’ label refers to a factory without fire doors, or one of the many where worker rights are actually respected. Nor is price a reliable barometer. “I’ve seen production lines producing high-end garments and the day before they were making £15 jeans,” says Coulter. “I doubt they’d suddenly get a [salary] hike of 300 per cent. It’s not as simple as the more you pay, the better you can sleep at night.”

For now, consumers are in the dark as to where and how their clothes are made. The Modern Slavery Act, signed into law in the UK in 2015, goes some way to forcing brands to be more transparent. Under the Act, any brand that turns over more than £36m a year must now publish a statement outlining the steps they’ve taken to ensure their supply chain is free of slave labour and human rights abuses. Although there’s currently no guidance on precisely what steps they are supposed to take to ensure this.

In Bangladesh, many of the victims of Rana Plaza still haven’t received compensation. The process by which it’s doled out is murky at best, says Ferdous, with little clarity on who receives how much, or why. There is anger in some quarters that those who lost limbs received more than those who lost people. Free medical treatment has also ended. “All this medication is expensive,” he says. “I’d say that the compensation was not enough. You cannot compensate people’s lives with money, any amount.”

There has also been no attempt to address the trauma of those crushed in the rubble, or who spent days in the darkness, some sawing through tissue and bone to try and get people out alive. Ferdous still sees the dead when he shuts his eyes, still has flashbacks. “Everything, the smell of the dead bodies, the visuals, the corpses and the injured people, hearing the emotion of the victim’s families,” he says. “I didn’t understand how traumatising it would be for about six months, [then] it started to impact me.”

A survivor of the Rana Plaza building collapseWorkers injured in the collapse meet to discuss compensation. Many victims are still waiting for the Rana Plaza relief to be handed out

He’s far from the only one carrying mental scars. Some Rana Plaza survivors are afraid to be in any enclosed space. For many garment workers, whose only skill is sewing clothes, the idea of going back to work in another unsafe factory is terrifying. “The ones who did, did so because they have no other way to live their lives. They have no other choice.” Ferdous also resents that, after the immediate uproar, the world seems to have forgotten the victims of Rana Plaza. Fast fashion brand profits are booming. Western consumers continue to buy cheap clothes with little thought about where they came from.

In response, he launched After Rana Plaza, a multimedia project that tells the victims’ stories in their own words. Through video and photography, Western consumers can see the impact of their buying choices on the project’s Instagram feed, where videos of people like Mosammat Sharvanu, who spent four days buried drinking her own blood to stay alive, appear beside glossy posts from the same brands she once sewed clothes for.

“I wanted to put the pictures and I also wanted to put the voice of the victims out,” says Ferdous. “It’s not Bangladesh’s story, it’s a global story. There is two sides. One is producing the clothes. One is enjoying the clothes. Two different worlds connected by this topic.”

As awareness fades in the west, at Rana Plaza, the wreckage remains. Where the eight-storey building once stood is now a pool of fetid rainwater. It glimmers in the sun, surrounded by chunks of steel and pillars whose concrete was cut with excess sand to lower construction costs. A small monument stands at one end of the site, two concrete hands clutching a hammer and sickle, erected by activists despite the police’s attempts to stop them. Its base is littered with reminders of what used to happen here; zippers, buttons, sewing instructions and thousands of tags, with Western fashion logos that sit above the phrase, ‘Made In Bangladesh’.