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?
Fashion and feminism have had a long relationship. From women rejecting corsets at the turn of the twentieth century to Man Repeller aesthetics today, women have pretty much always used clothes to express themselves – regardless of who they upset in the process (*cough* men *cough*). What do Janelle Monae, Frida Kahlo, Marlene Dietrich and Michelle Obama all have in common? Well apart from being badass, they all use/d their clothing as a means of self-representation. In the end, that’s really what fashion is for.
But beyond the image of fashion, that relationship becomes increasingly complex and difficult to balance, especially when considering how clothes are produced. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably a bit more sustainable-savvy than most but it’s worth repeating the issues. First of all, the majority of garment workers are female – around 80%, in fact – aged between 18 and 35. They face a mountain of issues in the workplace: low wages, dirty conditions, the threat of sexual harassment (experienced by around 60% of female survey respondents) and the shadow of the Rana Plaza accident all contribute to a hazardous working environment.
As a feminist, buying clothing made in these conditions seems inexcusable, but on the other hand refusing to buy removes a key source of income (and therefore independence) from so many women across the world. It’s an ethical quagmire that’s going to be difficult to unstick ourselves from.
So, what can we do as feminists in the global west? Perhaps we should look to our own history: the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968, paving the way for the Equal Pay Act 1970, shows just what power we have as a workforce. Now, when manufacturing is primarily outsourced to other parts of the world, we should be agitating for the most scrupulous conditions possible and supporting other women in making the changes they need in the industry.
Practically, this means supporting initiatives such as the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which was established following the Rana Plaza accident – it’s an independent, legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions aiming to ensure the safety and sustainability of the ready-made garments sector in Bangladesh. Since its inception, the Accord has helped to eliminate an incredible number of hazards: more than 97,000 across 1,600 sites! Furthermore, in Bangladesh workers have campaigned for higher wages, leading to a rise from around $63 per month to around $95: a good step, but there’s still a long way to go.
Another issue is that these initiatives don’t cover every manufacturer – around 3,000 are left out of the Accord, Alliance or Bangladeshi government initiatives, which means that there’s still a huge amount of work to do. The Accord itself is also in limbo, as the government is unready to assume responsibility for the 1,688 factories the agreement covers. And that’s just in Bangladesh.
It’s a daunting task, and it’s one that must be handled with care, especially as Western feminists. The least helpful thing to do would be to go all ‘white knight’ on these women, who don’t need us to save them! What we should be doing is offering support – and we can do that by lobbying brands at our end of the production line. Kicking up a fuss (otherwise known as ‘raising awareness’) is the name of the game, and it’s organisations like Fashion Revolution who are doing just that. Their campaign #whomademyclothes? encourages us as consumers to ask that question, digging a little deeper into where exactly our clothes come from.
This week (22nd-28th April) is Fashion Revolution Week – the sixth anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse. It’s the perfect opportunity to make our voices heard and agitate for change on a global scale: whilst our voices may seem tiny as individuals, if we’re all asking the same question that whisper will become a shout.
By Freya Clarke [read more from Freya here]