Four experts weigh in on how empowerment shouldn’t come at the cost of exploitation
It’s Fashion Revolution Week! To mark it, we’re publishing a series of articles on ethical consumption. Head here to find out why we need a fashion revolution – now.
Despite the sudden focus on all things ‘female empowerment’, with every ad and marketing agency looking for away to cash in on the fight for equal rights, the fashion industry still has a long way to go in terms of social and political equality. Yes, our ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirts may help break down the stigma surrounding the political movement, or the latest body-posi lingerie campaign may help western women feel liberated from the male gaze, but at what expense?
Three years on from the Rana Plaza disaster, chances still are that if you bought it on the high street, it wasn’t made with ethics in mind. And it’s this that the westernised, widespread co-option of feminist politics has seem to have forgotten – that with the commodification of feminism comes products, and with products often come sketchy production chains that leave women underpaid, undervalued and, at worst, dead.
With statistics indicating over three quarters of garment workers worldwide are women, it’s time we started considering fashion as an industry intrinsically linked with the rights of women – from the lowest-paid factory jobs right up to corporate positions. Below, we ask four ethical experts why they consider fashion a feminist issue, and how we – the consumers – can help tackle an industry still riddled with gender inequality.
SOPHIE SLATER, CO-FOUNDER OF BIRDSONG
“I personally see ethical fashion as a feminist issue, because 80 per cent of garment workers in sweatshop conditions are women. They get shit pay and work horrendously hard to support their families, often getting no protection for things like maternity leave, or against workplace sexual harassment. It’s a very raw expression of capitalist exploitation, and of course, women from developing countries are getting exploited the most. If you consume clothing and have a feminist consciousness, you should probably give a shit.
If we can imagine how poor working conditions are for people paid less than living wage in the UK, or how hard people had to fight to have five day weeks, unions, ventilation and job security, it shouldn’t be a huge leap of imagination to think about a woman in another country doing the same. Just because a parcel arrives on your doorstep with a nice logo and wrapped in tissue paper doesn’t mean it landed from space. Alienation of labour is something that affects everyone, and our rampant consumerism is connected to someone on the other end whose exploitation is allowing for it to be that cheap, unfortunately.
“If you consume clothing and have a feminist consciousness, you should probably give a shit” – Sophie Slater
Think critically. Challenge your own attitudes about what it’s worth spending money on, or being blase about in terms of where your clothes come from. Most importantly, learn and talk to discover your own opinions and solutions about it. Don’t let it be something you block out because it’s difficult or makes you feel ashamed.”
GLACIER GIRL, ECO-ACTIVIST
“Making conscious choices is really important. I think it’s useful to do a bit of a reality check: Do you know how? Where? And who made your clothes? Probably not. In today’s globalised market, it’s intentionally difficult for us to get these answers. This is when we need to think about why this information is concealed.
Surely if everything was made in a way that you’d be happy with then it would be advertised so evidently. But it’s never direct, we get fed this illusion of perfection in so many different forms to a point where it seems so mundane and almost unrecognisable as a fantasy. However, disposable fashion is such an avoidable issue. We all know that cheap clothes are exactly that. Cheap.
“Fashion can say so much, what do you want your fashion to say about you? Don’t limit the potential of what you can communicate through fashion by opting for unethical clothing” – Glacier Girl
Cheap labour, poor working conditions in a totally exploitative industry. As a consumer it’s only another short-lived item that gets shoved to the back of the wardrobe or thrown in the bin after a couple of wears. As a student myself it’s easy to fall into the trap of temptation with fast fashion but equally as easy to avoid.
Fashion can say so much: what do you want your fashion to say about you? That you support the poor treatment and abuse of people and their human rights? Don’t limit the potential of what you can communicate through fashion by opting for unethical clothing.”
TANSY HOSKINS, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR OF THE ANTI-CAPITALIST BOOK OF FASHION
“Feminism is not just a word that can be printed on a t-shirt, it’s a set of beliefs and it’s actions behind those beliefs. The fashion industry is staffed by women, so the products are created by women for women. In this country, a lot of women work in the retail industry, a lot of whom don’t have the living wage. From the factory level to the shop floor, women are the main target of the fashion industry.
The thing that’s positive about this popularisation is that it shows feminist ideas and fights for justice and equal rights are becoming mainstream, (and) that’s a reflection of the work that women are doing, and that activists are doing.
“Feminism is not just a word that can be printed on a t-shirt, it’s a set of beliefs and it’s actions behind those beliefs” – Tansy Hoskins
There are some very simple things that would make a big improvement. So, for example, fashion corporations paying their taxes in the countries where they earn huge profits would be a big start. The Panama Papers are showing that various fashion designers and fashion conglomerates are not paying their taxes. Tax avoidance is an issue that disproportionately affects women – they are the ones that are often most affected by loss of public services, whether it’s the NHS or Sure Start nurseries. It’s not even as though actually paying taxes is some big radical idea – it’s just fair.
Why don’t people care? When really looking at labour rights you’re actually having to really question the fabric of society and the things you’ve grown up thinking are normal. Questioning aesthetics and lack of diversity is a good first step, but aesthetic issues have to be seen as a symptom of the wider problems in society. The reason we’ve had very few black models ever gracing the cover of certain magazines is because it reflects the attitudes of the fashion establishment. It’s not as simple as if you change the aesthetic you change the world – but it’s a good start.”
HAYAT RACHI, FOUNDER OF NEON MOON LINGERIE
“Both ethical manufacturing and body image are so important to Neon Moon. We don’t intend to be problematic in one and great in the other, so we focus on both as priorities. Body image is a universal issue as there are narrow standards of beauty imposed on women in every culture of the world. Why should we pressurise women to look a certain way from a young age?
We rebel against this idea, and have women with freckles, body hair, stretch marks, cellulite and other natural attributes that reflect our community and therefore normalise a woman’s body away from sexualisation. Transparency is key. We work with a manufacturer here in the UK which prides itself on safety, security and also a great working atmosphere – we don’t exploit women in one country to empower them in another. We are sweatshop-free, objectification-free, photoshop-free, sexualisation-free and body shaming-free. We are all about bringing an equal footing for women and LGBT+ people, and to be inclusive to all.
“We don’t exploit women in one country to empower them in another” – Hayat Rachi
We create lingerie that isn’t for the male gaze but for the person wearing it. We’re an unapologetically feminist brand and therefore have no issue with debating topics that might be considered untrendy in order to inform all, and for us to learn too. Times are changing and people are standing up for brands that share the same beliefs as theirs.”