Most garments are cut and sewn by female factory workers in the developing world, where working conditions are poor and labour rates are low. Can you be a fashion lover and a feminist at the same time?
The dilemma I am facing when thinking of the fashion industry – the garment workers’ rights and my interest in fashion as a way of self-expression – is whether it is better to find solutions to completely stop buying new clothes when knowing how they are produced or rather to invest in more ethical and eco-friendly fashion items.
My first tendency – as a student, which implies the rather low amount of money I have at my disposal – would be to stop buying new clothes knowing that they were produced in inhuman conditions and that the impact of my actions is supporting a system which oppresses a huge number of other human beings, and instead find solutions such as buying in secondhand shops or engaging in fashion activities like swapping clothes or learning how to sew. This would be the ‘cheaper’ option, which would, however, require a total redefining of my buying behavior and the relation to my clothes.
But, assuming that millions of consumers would follow that behavior and stop buying newly produced clothes, I wonder what impact this break in consumption would have on those garment workers. If less items are bought, production should, logically, slow down which could lead to many people in garment factories losing their jobs. Is that, then, really a good solution? And is that not only taking care of the symptoms rather than the real source of the problem? Nothing can guarantee that the workers who did not lose their job will have better working conditions.
This option has the advantage that it leads consumers to think about their buying behavior and take responsibility for it. They can thus develop a consciousness of their impact on other people’s lives. When we start thinking about how our clothes were made, we will see the bigger picture and become more mindful before buying the next fashion item. However, this will probably have little impact on the working conditions in the manufacturing industries unless we leave the individual sphere and take collective actions.
The second option would be to increase our expenditure by buying – instead of mainstream fashion items produced in suspicious conditions – ethical clothes and shoes which should, normally, have a more positive impact on garment workers’ lives and on the planet as well. The non-profit company Labour behind the Label warns, however, that there is often a lack of transparency on the part of the fashion industry about their commitment to ethical and sustainable practices, which makes it difficult for buyers to know if brands really are as sustainable and ethical as they want us to believe.
This is where collective action comes into play. Events like the Fashion Revolution Week are perfect places to debate, discuss and inform people about the necessity of transforming the way our clothes are produced and the importance of easy access to transparent data. Collective actions can force big brands which have been benefiting from the situation for too long to assume their responsibilities and guarantee decent working, and thus living, conditions of their workers.
Reflecting upon that dilemma, I realized that it does not actually have to be dilemma but that the two arguments – workers’ rights and my interest in fashion – can be complementary. If it is absolutely understandable and obvious that I would fight for my own rights, why should I not fight for the rights’ of those who enable me to live my life the way I want, enable me to buy clothes I like, enable me to be myself. Why should this privilege be made at the expense of the other?
To me, feminism as the fight to end female oppression and the fight for garment workers’ rights is based on the same desire to end the oppression of a part of the world’s population. The structure of the exploitation of some human beings by other human beings was very well explained by a great feminist figure, bell hooks, in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984). This book opened my eyes to the connection between feminism and other movements fighting against any kind of oppression. It showed me that I cannot fight for women’s rights and not fight, at the same time, for everybody’s right to equality and a decent human life.
While I might not be able to control every aspect of the impact of my fashion consumption, I can at least develop a consciousness which will enable me to change my behavior, take more actions and unite with other groups fighting against the exploitation of human beings.