Western women have a responsibility to use our privilege to help women in the developing world, because if feminism isn’t intersectional, meaning that it considers racial and it’s just another form of white supremacy. Fair fashion is a feminist issue twofold: the fast fashion industry overwhelmingly caters to women and that most clothing is made by women. According to the World Bank 80% of garment workers are women, and the majority of fast fashion marketing is aimed at women. This is a women’s issue. If you believe in feminism and want women to be treated fairly, you simply cannot ignore the plight of the women who made your clothes. At this point, it’s beyond cognitive dissonance, but willing ignorance in the face of convenience.
Fair fashion is a feminist issue twofold: the fast fashion industry overwhelmingly caters to women and that most clothing is made by women.
Commuting to their job, garment workers might pass fortress-like walls, gates, and security checkpoints that give the impression that they might as well be in prison. Moving from their single-room living quarters, they then work between eight and 12 hours sewing, cutting, and finishing the clothes likely on your back right now. Their arms ache from repetitive motion, shoulders from hunching, and heads from the deafening hum of machines and sickly light. This account is based on information gathered by the nonprofit Fashion Revolution, whose garment worker diaries project highlights the lives of the people affected by the exploitative labor practices of big business.
The women who work in the garment industry also experience gendered exploitation and harassment. Many aren’t given any or much too little maternity leave. In a recent report published this May in the Dhaka Tribune, a Bangladeshi newspaper, wrote of the experience of Roksana, a factory worker who is returning to her old job only two months after giving birth after having not been paid for the months she was away. “Pregnant workers are forced to leave work,” she said, “I have to climb stairs (and) stand in line for long hours. Such situations are created so workers leave their jobs during this period; no one will spare me in these places.” This is despite there being a 2006 Bangladeshi law requiring employers to provide women with sixteen weeks of paid maternity leave. The article continues to explain that while the employers claim they offer paid leave that women choose not to take advantage of, the reality is that women face immense pressure to not claim it and choose not to report the removal of their rights.
This is a women’s issue.
According to Human Rights Watch, women in the garment industry also suffer sexual harassment from their bosses. In one recorded case, a factory manager pressured workers to sleep with him, and when they retaliated by reporting his behavior, the regional managers did nothing. They just don’t care. However, those who spoke up were punished by being labeled “unproductive” and were expected to work longer hours and meet higher production thresholds than other workers. Just like the ineffective laws and regulations put in place to regulate parental leave, laws passed to protect workers from harassment are rarely enforced. When interviewed in 2017 about a law passed in 2013 by the Cambodian government, most workers were unaware that it excited or knew of cases in which harassers were brought to justice.
In both cases, increasing accountability and removing those who act to maintain the patriarchal status quo is necessary. There are already organizations like Better Work, a joint program created by the International Labor Organization and the International Finance Corporation, working to place women in management positions and to help ensure women are paid equally to their male counterparts and harassment and abusive labor practices are no longer tolerated. This is a five year initiative, though it will take much more than one program to fix an institutional, and in some ways cultural, prejudices. We can’t hoist Western values into another culture, but we can ensure that traditional gender roles are not weaponized by those who want to exploit others.
From “good men” to good paying jobs or Instagram likes, Western culture loves a good cat fight.
As consumers, we also need to address our insatiable need for cheap clothing that’s largely driven by marketing campaigns that manipulate women. Hating yourself makes white men rich. Modern marketing of the fashion and beauty industries all depend on the insecurities of women who have been taught that their primary value is aesthetic and that they need to compete for limited resources. From “good men” to good paying jobs or Instagram likes, Western culture loves a good cat fight. The casualties come in the form of exploited garment workers and the self esteem of generations of young girls raised in this miasma. Advertising would have you believe that a new shirt will make you happy; not only will possessions fix one’s insecurity, they’re likely part of a system that preys on women on both sides of the supply chain. Choosing fair fashion is not only a sustainability and ethical practice, it’s a feminist act as well.
Written by Mary Imgrund.