If you’ve stuck around here long enough, you’ll know that I am an advocate of slow, sustainable fashion.
Much of this passion has come from my work looking at exploitation and human trafficking – realising the connection and disconnect between what we consume and the people who make our stuff. I have spent years now learning about the fashion industry; the systems, the policies, the garment workers, the belly of the beast.
The fashion industry is booming. There are 52 collection cycles a year with most big retailers. It might not be surprising then that fashion is the most pollutant industry in the world; second only to oil. There are huge environmental concerns that we just don’t consider when we bag a bargain. Did you know it takes 1800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to make the average pair of jeans? The rise of fast fashion means that factories in developing countries (where labour is cheap) are manufacturing non-stop to keep up with our quick-fix excessive shopping demands. The factories are filling the air with toxic chemicals pumped out by machinery used to make synthetic clothing.
The effects of this relentless manufacturing is evident in climate change – an issue that impacts developing countries with particularly huge devastation. Climate change means that developing countries are experiencing overwhelming heat and vast areas of drought, leading to crop failure. Crop failure means that farmers can’t survive in business and trade. Business failure leads to poverty, malnourishment and eventually whole community vulnerability. Can you see how it all connects…? Our demand, our excess. Global repercussions.
Environmental issues in the fashion industry are one thing, but lately I’ve been feeling strongly that in order to see real change, we need to recognise that fast fashion is a massive feminist issue as well.
Not only is it mostly women who buy and wear fast fashion but it's mostly women who make the garments we buy. In fact, 80 – 90% of garment workers across the globe are young, uneducated, rural migrant women.
There has been such a surge of feminist sentiment in the Global North in the last few years – women are rising up to claim their space, to demand more, to be seen and heard. Small movements towards equality are breaking through the ground of patriarchy and we are hearing new voices of gifted women in the social, political and business spheres. We are leaning in, we are taking up space, we are relentless in our pursuit of equality.
That’s the good news. Progress. Voices heard.
But here’s the glitch.
When feminism is seen as a cause pursued by and for mainly Western women, we are completely missing the point.
Equality for middle class women in the West is not the goal. It is missing a giant piece of the global puzzle that unlocks the bigger picture of equality.
We wear our high street feminist slogan tees, but have we thought about who made it?
In Bangladesh – the country responsible for most of the worlds garment production - recruiters seek out poor, young women to do the work. The idea is that these young women have more energy, are more flexible, have greater pressure to provide for their families and less knowledge of political systems that keep them in poverty. They scout for women who will do the most amount of work and make the least amount of noise. That unsettles me. A lot.
Unless we, the women of the West, can see that equality for the women who make our clothes is intrinsically connected to our own equality, then any progress we make in the West is in vain.
There are incredible brands out there carving out a brave and different way and we can check in to see how our favourite retailers are doing to prioritise equality. Having worked in the fashion industry as a designer for years (for brands like Zara and Topshop), Snow, founder of ethical clothing company Bibico, realised that it was possible to create a company that worked with producers who really looked after the people who worked for them. Transparency was attainable.
Bibico now works with two women's cooperatives that are both fair-trade certified by the WFTO. The coops provide women with training, education and work, support and counselling. This way of working is empowering them to move themselves and their children forward and out of the world of poverty. Their clothing is fairly priced to be able to make this happen and Bibico is evidence that business can be done so it’s fair for everyone.
You see, The Sisterhood is so much more than what we see around us or on twitter and slogan tees. It is deep and wide and connected throughout the world by so much more than we realise. Our consumer habits matter. Where we buy from matters. What we wear is testament to what we believe. We cannot continue to knowingly or unknowingly isolate matters of equality for women to geography because the truth is that it is all connected. Our empowerment is tied up in the empowerment of the 15 year old working in the Bangladeshi garment factory.
This is important for us women in the West because we are the consumers. We create the demand; set the tone. We actually hold the key to the revolution for the women who need to be given back access to their voice.
Our purchase power has the potential to change business models, demand transparency of supply chains and call for a better way. We don’t want to shut down garment factories and put women out of jobs – we want to call the brands that use those factories to excellence and fairness. To be confident that when we shop, that the women who made our clothes are safe, well paid and able to voice their concerns without fear.
Look behind your label; consider asking your favourite brands (especially the ones that are using advertising to play on our increasing political/feminist awareness) to tell us more about who makes our clothes and what they are doing to empower those women.
The industry needs to know that women of the West are interested; that we are standing in solidarity with our sisters in the garment factories with our voices and our wallets.
I'd love to continue the conversation with you on this. Do you see the connection? What kind of things do you struggle with in terms of ethical fashion?