Fast Fashion & Feminism: The disconnect
Two-thirds of young women in the UK identify as feminists. Defined as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights’, this means promoting and supporting equality and empowerment for all. Given that the fashion industry is kept alive through mostly female efforts, there is a real disconnect between what feminist consumers advocate for and what they actually empower with their purchases.
In countries including India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, textile workers live well below the poverty line. Enduring extremely long shifts and yet still struggling to afford food, clothing and shelter, they are subjected to further torment such as being fired if they fall pregnant, physically attacked and killed for speaking up against their circumstances, and drinking as little water as possible during shifts as the strict manufacturing deadlines do not permit toilet breaks.
It was during the first UK lockdown last year that such practices finally seemed to come to surface and gain much deserved attention. Despite this, Manchester based fast fashion giant, BooHoo PLC, saw their sales increase by 45% even though they were accused of slave labour and unethical working conditions as stated above (and not for the first time.)
This disconnect is fuelled by fast fashion brands greenwashing their customers into thinking they are acting for the interest of people and planet. The problem here is not ignorance but simply a lack of transparency and education around the realities of what is perceived as a luxurious trade. Another key component driving this disconnect is the way in which fast fashion labels market themselves in line with the feminist movement. From straplines and hashtags to slogan T-shirts and ‘purpose-driven’ Instagram campaigns, what we see on the surface could not be further from the realities hidden beneath.
The Contradiction of Slogan T’s
In 2019, online retailer Pretty Little Thing launched their #EveryBODYinPLT campaign for International Women’s Day. Selling slogan T-shirts promoting ‘girl power’ for only £10, the brand appeared to be positively promoting feminism, however, wearing one of these T-shirts challenges that very movement. Selling garments so cheaply means that at some stage during production, someone is suffering financially.
It becomes apparent who that ‘someone’ is when you consider that 5 out of 10 of the worlds richest people made their money in the fashion and retail sector whereas garment workers struggle to feed their families and afford basic necessities. By providing zero transparency on their manufacturing processes, we know from the many scandals revealed in the news that the women printing feminist slogans onto these T-shirts are certainly not feeling the ‘girl power’ themselves.
Unfortunately, this seems to be a rather common theme as consumers get greenwashed by companies whose statement mission couldn’t be further from the truth. UK based clothing label, Missguided, for example, claim their ‘mission is to empower females globally to be confident in themselves and be who they want to be’ and others follow suit with similar statements: according to Misspap, they have ‘lived to serve the women’, Topshop summarise their calling as ‘to produce fashionable products in an ethical way and demonstrate a responsible attitude towards people and the environment’ and so on. Fast fashion giants who claim to be committed to empowering all contradict their own ethos by exploiting their workers whilst profiting off feminism.
Sadly, women’s rights is just one of multiple movements these labels jump on to as a money making tactic. In June 2020, fast fashion retailer, In The Style, announced their creation of a slogan T-shirt supporting the Black Lives Matter crisis. In order to create these T’s, garment workers were forced to return to the factories. As reported, safety standards in these buildings were already virtually non existent and pairing this with the fact that they were sent back to work during a pandemic, it was obvious there would be no protection in place for these people and maintaining social distancing would be impossible.
Although they planned to donate all proceeds from the T-shirts, In The Style will still have made a profit through people buying other items whilst on the website, effectively using George Floyd’s death as a marketing strategy. If support to the cause was truly their only intention, they wouldn’t have needed to put garment workers at risk when the brand has the money to make direct donations.
Furthermore, a black model had not been featured on In The Style’s Instagram feed since January, which then showed the misalignment between the intention and the reality. If they truly supported the cause they would pay their workers a living wage, ensure safe working conditions and present a diverse range of models. The T-shirt was quickly removed from their social channels and website and an apology was issued stating they would donate the £10,000 already raised and double this donation.
An Alternative Approach
Education, reflection and subsequently changing your mindset are the first steps to steering away from fast fashion. Unfortunately for consumers, trusting the word of these labels simply isn’t enough; we have to do the research for ourselves. The only way brands can provide their customers with peace of mind is through transparency. For a business to be transparent means firstly, being totally honest and open about how their garments are made from start to finish and secondly, making this information accessible to everyone.
Not only is providing transparency becoming increasingly relevant in our social climate, but it also creates authentic narratives which are extremely powerful. Brands can only claim to be a part of the feminist movement if they can transparently prove that throughout their supply chain, they are actively empowering their workers.
Driven by purpose, not profit, GNGR Bees provide extensive transparency on all their manufacturing processes. Not only do they address the environmental aspect of what it means to run a sustainable business, but also the human element. By partnering with small social enterprises, GNGR Bees are actively empowering these communities, keeping artisan craftsmanship alive and valued. You can read more about their incredible supply chain story here.
Authenticity is powerful. If a brand is claiming to be in support of social and environmental issues, do not just take this at face value. Dig a little deeper and search for evidence of these claims. If there is no proof to back up what they are saying, then there is nothing authentic about the narratives they are pushing. Slow fashion brands are proud of their commitment to protecting both people and the planet. Take the time to learn about what they are up to and support them on their mission to restructure our outdated fashion industry.