Fast Fashion Is A Feminist Problem
By Lauren Bravo
That no slogan tee can fix…
What does feminist fashion look like? A parade of historical options spring to mind, from suffragette sashes and burnt bras to pussy hats, ‘Support your local girl gang’ t-shirts and, most recently, boob motifs as far as the eye can see. Using our clothes as a billboard for our principles is a practice as old as time – but in 2021, sloganeering doesn’t quite cut it anymore. Because these days we know how badly those #girlboss tees are selling women short.
As the sassy sister of greenwashing and wokewashing, ‘femwashing’ sees capitalism cash in on the fight for women’s rights, with messaging co-opted as a marketing ploy by brands whose mission isn’t to liberate us but to keep us shopping. It’s become an ironic punchline in its own right: the ‘feminist’ t-shirt made for pennies by a woman bound by modern slavery. But the figures are no joke.
Around 80% of the world’s 75 million garment workers are women, less than 2% of whom earn a living wage. Mostly young women of colour, they’re often subjected to sexual harassment and abuse at work, forced into exploitative jobs to support their families, and paid less than male coworkers as standard.
“While Western brands looks to increase their profit margins by finding cheaper and cheaper labour, garment workers are locked into a cycle of poverty and have trouble supporting their families – with some even having to turn to sex work to earn enough for food,” says Katrina Caspelich, Director of Marketing for Remake, an organisation which campaigns strenuously for garment workers’ rights.
Attempts to unionise and fight for better conditions are routinely met with violence. Childcare and domestic responsibilities often stop women from being able to find other work, while at the same time fertility is policed and pregnancy can be a sackable offence.
As is so often the case, it’s a vicious circle; the garment industry is both evidence of systemic inequality, and a tool that keeps it going.
“Most managers at factories are men who hire women to work with a widespread belief that women are more docile and willing to work longer hours for little pay,” explains Caspelich. “And with most workers being young, migrant women who are staying away from their families for the first time, there’s no proper support system or access to prevention for sexual harassment within the factory.” Or as one Bangladeshi factory worker told Labour Behind the Label: “Women can be made to dance like puppets, but men cannot be abused in the same way.”
Garment production remains physically hazardous too, with exposure to chemicals, dehydration, exhaustion, machinery injuries and respiratory illnesses all par for the course. And the final kicker: women (again, predominantly poor women of colour) are more vulnerable to the environmental impact of fashion. The UN states that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women.
Meanwhile at the other end of those long and knotty supply chains, only 12.5% of the world’s fashion companies have a female CEO. Despite 78% of fashion students and 73% of fashion retail workers being women, their presence mysteriously disappears as we move up the corporate ladder. The fashion industry is built on women’s shoulders, and yet it’s overwhelmingly cis male pockets our money is lining.
The inequality is stark, whichever way you slice it. Fast fashion consumers are overwhelmingly female too – or rather, while all genders buy cheap, mass-produced fashion, women are more likely to update our wardrobes with the frequency (even urgency) that keeps tills ringing and rag trade billionaires in yachts. Although the gap is shrinking, a 2019 report found that women still buy more new clothes than men across almost every category. In the world’s supply of used clothing there is ‘at least’ seven times more womenswear than menswear.
Although for what it’s worth, men are statistically less likely than women to donate their clothes, resell them or pass them on – but 7% more likely to throw them out. In what market researchers Mintel have termed an ‘eco gender gap’, the responsibility for ethical purchasing seems to fall more heavily on female shoulders. It’s the classic Catch-22 of womanhood. We’re shamed if we don’t, then shamed when we do.
Of course, all this gives a stubbornly binary view of fashion in an increasingly gender-fluid world. But that’s also part of the problem – while millennial and Gen Z shoppers are less inclined than ever before to stick to ascribed ‘menswear’ and ‘womenswear’ sections, the fashion industry has been slow to diversify.
“Genderless [fashion] for a while has been coded as shapeless, oversized basics,” says Ben Pechey, a writer and activist whose blog and Instagram feed fly the flag for joyful non-binary style. “This shows that no gender-diverse people have been involved in any of the processes. When you look at the decision-makers [in these brands], many of them will be cisgender males, who may have never even met anyone from the transgender community before.”
“It’s about lack of experience, and laziness to go out and do the work,” they add. “Most brands only care about the people that will boost share prices and bring in larger profits.”
A cynic might suggest it’s in the industry’s best interest to keep things binary. Thanks to the ‘pink tax’, clothes designed for women tend to cost more than their male-targeted equivalents (8% more according to one 2015 US study). As long as fashion brands keep us on either side of that flimsy wall, they can hang onto the profit margin. It might take more than Harry Styles in a Gucci dress to tear it down.
Likewise, while fashion remains something women are pressured to perform for social kudos, so it remains hard for us to quit fast fashion and slow down our shopping habits. Not all women feel this way, of course, of course – and plenty of men and nonbinary people do. But we can’t ignore how inextricably fashion is still linked to women’s feelings about our bodies, our self-worth and our value in the world. So many girls grow up believing we’re only as good as our last outfit. Meanwhile my boyfriend has worn the exact same clothes for four days in a row without the merest flicker of shame.
Luckily, it’s not all misogyny in sheep’s clothing. While mainstream fashion continues to centre mostly thin, white, able bodies while keeping its garment workers behind a veil of secrecy, independent brands are leading the way with holistic business models that strive to serve women better at every step in the supply chain. Brands like Birdsong London (motto: ‘No sweatshops, no Photoshop’), which raises the bar on what constitutes ‘feminist’ fashion by paying a London living wage to skilled migrant women who face barriers to UK employment. Its ‘Sisterhood is Powerful’ top is that rare thing: a slogan tee with the goods to back it up.
Brands like We Are Kin, whose cool, minimalist styles are all made to order in East London. “We’re made by women, we pay a living wage, and women are at the heart of what we do,” says founder Ngoni Chikwenengere. “We cater for women of all shapes and sizes, and when designing I think about how pieces will fit different bodies. If someone falls outside of our size 6-26 range, we’ll work with them to make the piece that they need at no extra charge.”
Or Loud Bodies, founded by Patricia Luiza Blaj, creates the kind of flirty, flamboyant, celebratory plus-size fashion that used to be virtually non-existent on the high street – and does it ethically too. Or Devon-based Sancho’s, run by Kalkidan Legesse, whose radical pricing model allows customers to choose between different prices, paying more to invest in the business and subsidise products (including period pants) for those who can afford less.
Brands like Mayamiko, which was founded to provide opportunities for disadvantaged women in Malawi and now sells clothes and accessories handmade by indigenous artisans across the world. By honouring traditional textile crafts – skills which are so often interwoven with female stories, preserved for millennia as part of domestic life – fashion can do so much more to empower women than slapping a feisty phrase across a t-shirt.
Of course, shopping isn’t the only way to achieve that. In fact, as we better understand that we can’t buy our way to sustainability, we realise that ‘support’ doesn’t only mean voting with our wallets – it can mean championing women-owned brands on social media, or signing petitions and lending our voice to movements like Remake’s game-changing #PayUp Fashion and #PayHer campaigns. It means looking beyond the optics to the people who don’t get to be seen.
It’s no longer enough, if it ever was, to define feminism as the vague notion of ‘supporting women’ – any women, often the nearest women – without looking at the way gender intersects with other systems of oppression. Race, size, class, ability, sexuality. Colonialism.
“True feminism means supporting fellow women in our neighborhood, and supporting the woman sitting at a sewing machine in an overseas factory,” says Caspelich. “As citizens, we can support the women who make our clothes by learning who they are, listening to their stories, and remembering their hopes and dreams are no different to ours.”
Lauren Bravo is a journalist, digital editor and copywriter who writes for the Guardian, Refinery 29 UK, Grazia, Stylist, Cosmopolitan, the Telegraph and more. She is the author of How To Break Up With Fast Fashion: A guilt-free guide to changing the way you shop – for good.