Since I started blogging about conscious living in 2017, a fair amount of progress has been made in terms of a shift in consumer attitudes towards sustainability. On the surface at least, it seems like more and more people want to make sustainable choices. This is evident from food to fashion, one of the most polluting industries in the world. I’ve seen lots of new, conscious brands pop up in the last few years, which focus on using recycled materials and less polluting production processes. These brands are also becoming more affordable, making them more accessible to the average consumer and weakening the argument that sustainable fashion is expensive.
This is all great news. But making the connection between fast fashion and environmental destruction is only half the battle. The same brands I’ve seen making announcements about shifting to sustainable materials are at the same time still not providing adequate information on where their garments are being made and by whom. According to the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report, 60% of surveyed brands are now investing in sustainable materials, but only 5% of the same brands can demonstrate paying a living wage to their garment workers. It’s frustrating to see brands miss the link between ethics and their labour policies (or choose not to see it). It’s even more frustrating when it’s primarily women-owned brands which preach female empowerment. The State of Fashion Report 2019 states that, based on a data scrape of more than 2,000 fashion retailers, the appearance of the word “feminist” on homepages and newsletters increased five-fold from 2016 to 2018.
It’s time to shine the spotlight on the link between fast fashion and feminism. Here’s the thing: there are over 80 million garment workers in the fashion supply chain worldwide, the overwhelming majority of whom are female. And where are the vast majority of these workers located? In the Global South, where brands can take advantage of cheap labour and the fact that there is little or no protection for workers. It’s widely reported that conditions for garment workers are often dangerous, leading to horrific accidents like we saw in 2013, when a garment factory with links to major highstreet fast fashion brands collapsed and killed 1,134 people. And working in dangerous conditions is only the beginning: the majority of garment workers do not receive a living wage, the minimum required to provide a family with shelter, food and education.
So we know conditions are dangerous and workers are paid poorly, but let’s look more closely at the issue of gender. It’s widely cited that the reason women make up such a large percentage of garment workers is specifically because they’re female. Women are desirable in the garment industry because employers can take advantage of cultural stereotypes — that they are passive and flexible — which women are often obliged to adhere to. And that’s not the only thing which weakens their position as employees. Women generally have a whole load of responsibilities beyond paid labour. Clean Clothes Campaign states that “Productive, reproductive and domestic responsibilities such as cleaning, cooking and childcare constrain women’s ability to seek other types of employment”. They simply don’t have the time or opportunity to improve their working conditions, making them the ideal employees in management’s eyes.
In addition, garment workers experience gender-based violence. Gender-based violence (GBV) is both a cause and a consequence of poverty and gender inequality. GBV ranges from gendered discrimination, such as lack of access to maternity leave and childcare, to sexual harassement, and in extreme cases even rape or murder. A recent report on GBV in Bangladesh found that 76% of all interviewed workers had faced some form of GBV in the workplace.
How do we address this issue, beyond boycotting? Brands need to take responsibility for their role in the dynamics that lead to gender-based violence. For example, recent studies show that buyers frequently use their leverage over suppliers to demand lower prices, shorter lead times and higher production quantities. As a result, suppliers increase workers’ production targets, leading to an increase in violence and harassment towards workers when targets are not met.
This is confirmed by research conducted in Bangladesh: 64% of the study respondents stated that they were under tremendous pressure to produce garment products and 35% of them stated that they had experienced physical violence from their supervisors for that reason.
A problem exacerbated by Covid-19
Bloomberg reported in March 2020 that over 1000 garment factories in Bangladesh had orders cancelled, worth roughly $1.44 billion, due to the coronavirus outbreak. Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, more than half of Bangladesh suppliers have had the bulk of their in-process, or already completed, production cancelled. The AWAJ Foundation reported that many factories in Bangladesh were forced to shut down indefinitely as a result. The Centre for Global Workers’ rights produced an in-depth research report into the impact of COVID-19 on global garment workers. The findings highlight perfectly the connection between buyers and garment workers, and the power they have to change things. Here’s a summary of the key findings.
As a result of cancelled orders:
- 72.1% of buyers refused to pay for raw materials (fabric, etc.) already purchased by the supplier, and 91.3% of buyers refused to pay for the cut-make-trim cost (production cost) of the supplier.
- 98.1% of buyers refused to contribute to the cost of paying the partial wages to furloughed workers that is required by law in Bangladesh.
- 72.4% of furloughed workers were sent home without pay.
- 97.3% of buyers refused to contribute to severance pay expenses of dismissed workers, also a legal entitlement in Bangladesh.
- 80.4% of dismissed workers were sent home without severance pay.
Bear in mind that the above statistics are true, despite the fact that many brands claim to have “responsible exit” policies, in which they commit to support factories in mitigating potential adverse impacts to workers should they decide to exit. To bring this back to the issue of gender, this equates to millions of women having their source of income suddenly cut off, leaving them in a situation where they are unable to meet basic needs, for themselves and their families. All because the fast fashion industry is built on cheap labour, prioritising profit and fast turnover over human rights.
A silver lining?
The above statistics make for pretty depressing reading, particularly since as a global society we are all weathering the same Coronavirus storm, but those of us contemplating the debate on fast fashion are likely experiencing said storm from a very privileged position. But, there might be reason for hope. A recent report states that attitudes towards fashion have shifted as a result of COVID-19, and not in the ways you might expect. The majority of the European consumers surveyed state they are interested in not only the responsibility brands have in terms of sustainability, but also their social responsibility and care for workers.
What can we do?
In short, we need to stop buying from brands who are consistently called out for poor practices. We need to educate ourselves. We need to hold brands accountable by asking them for information on where their garments are produced and in what conditions. We need to ask the brands promoting female empowerment, did the (most likely) female garment worker feel empowered when making your items?
Importantly, if we support the feminist movement, we have to acknowledge white feminism. White feminists need to recognise intersectionality, and accept that fast fashion is a form of oppression for women in the Global South who lack the privileges we enjoy. Aja Barber, a prominent advocate of ethical and sustainable fashion puts it well: “Ethical fashion is a feminist issue and if we are all feminists we should try and divest from practices which are hurting other women.”