Fashion is an industry greatly catered to women, and fuelled by women. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they also make up a large part of the supply chain. 80% of garment factory workers are women (up to 90% in countries where the garment industry are the largest employers). However, the disconnect between the statistics and the reality of these women is a question of ethicality and equality. Sustainable fashion ensures a positive impact on the planet, but also on the women involved – this is where it becomes a feminist issue. Since fashion has been used as a tool to empower the women buying the clothes, it’s time it also empowers the women responsible for those very garments.
The Price Of Fast Fashion
Fast fashion follows three rather attractive rubrics – high speed, variety, and low cost. However, what most people don’t realise is the adverse effects of this system is largely borne by female garment factory workers. These workers, especially in developing countries, are paid per piece they produce, get paid very low wages, and don’t receive compensation for overtime, sick or maternity leaves. Yet women still choose to work in the garment and textile industry, as it is the safer and more respectable option for those without much to choose from. The dearth of options for the poor and uneducated, along with the necessity to earn a living is an unfortunate combination of reasons why women continue to toil 100 hours or more a week. The ability for these women to earn an income, and be financially independent is a huge social equaliser. However, it is practically impossible when women workers in Bangladesh earn 5,300 taka a month (approximately USD 63), hardly enough to cover their basic needs.
Empower, Not Exploit
Large fashion brands believe they are creating jobs and boosting the economy of the developing countries by outsourcing their garment manufacturing. While it is partly true, the low competitive minimum wages in these countries benefit the fashion conglomerates more than they help their economies in return. A number of changes are being implemented since the Rana Plaza incident, to improve the wellbeing of these workers. However, there is a long way to go from “living like rats”, to having safe working conditions, proper healthcare and an environment free from sexual harassment and discrimination – and it starts with these brands being transparent about their supply chains. As more fashion brands are choosing to be transparent, consumers can see how their dollars and cents directly impact the lives of the women working on their clothes. Having a feminist conscience is more than wearing feminist slogan tees – FYI not as feminist as you think, but is about understanding (who bears) the consequences of our actions.
The Female Factor
Statistics prove women in labour-intensive industries, such as textile, earn significantly less than men. 80% of garment factory workers in developing countries are women, and factory owners take advantage of women’s unequal position in society by paying them less with little opportunity for promotion, even though their capabilities tell a different story. Although fashion is being used to empower the women buying the clothes, it needs to find ways to empower the women making the clothes too. When consumers buy their clothes from ethical brands, they are stating that they are supporting women earning living wages, and working in respectable workplaces. They are supporting their aspirations to be financially independent and to support their families without facing the harsh circumstances they face now. This is women supporting other women, and the irony is that the fate of the average 20 year old female in the garment making industry rests on the purchasing powers of another 20 year old female.
Fast fashion is a single feminist issue, and ethical fashion is one solution for the many feminist issues within the textile industry. As more consumers get an insight into the lives of these garment factory workers, it allows the mindset about fast fashion being ‘disposable’ to change into a more sustainable alternative. Ethical fashion brands support and emphasize on the people in the supply chain, not the profits. While fast fashion’s affordable price cannot be matched by ethical fashion, its higher cost is justified by ensuring the women behind the clothes don’t pay for cheap fashion with their lives.