On March 8th, we celebrate International Women’s Day. It’s is a moment to rally, to protest and to write an obligatory Instagram post about loving your mom. But it’s also a moment to have some important conversations. This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #BalanceforBetter; it seeks to achieve a better gender-balanced world. So we’re asking: is the fashion industry Balanced for Better? Or is Feminist Fast Fashion a contradiction of terms?
The Newer “New F Word”
In 2004, a breakout book by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner proposed that “Feminism” could be considered “the new F word.” Feminism, it argued, had become "a dirty word” and many women were nervous to align themselves with it. To us, Feminism should never be a dirty word. On International Women’s Day, we want to recognise the importance of Feminism for what it is at its core: a mission for equality. Instead, we’d like to propose a newer “new F word:” Fast Fashion.
Fast Fashion is defined by a frantic race for retailers to constantly produce new clothing lines and offer them at cheap prices. It’s been praised as making fashion more democratic. Clothes are available to all at affordable prices. Some argue Fast Fashion frees women to indulge themselves within an industry that has been historically elitist. But there’s a problem with that mentality, and it rests on the fact that Fast Fashion production notoriously results in the exploitation of female workers. We cannot in good conscious label a movement as “democratic” when it is built on worker exploitation. We cannot say that Fast Fashion makes women “free” when it, in fact, makes women vulnerable and oppressed. Is Feminist Fast Fashion a contradiction of terms? We believe it is, and here’s why:
Exploitation of Female Garment Workers
The majority of garment workers in developing countries are women. The majority of garment factory managers are men. This
fact alone sets the stage for the potential exploitation of female workers. Those lucky enough to escape verbal and physical abuse from their male superiors face unsafe working conditions and demand for overtime hours that are barely ever compensated. Factory owners in countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia use women’s unequal place in society as a basis to exploit them for cheap labour. Women working extreme overtime hours earn less than a living wage and still find themselves in poverty. Although worker exploitation is a larger issue, it’s especially prevalent in the production of Fast Fashion because Fast Fashion demands such unrealistically quick production times. That demand directly results in corner-cutting with regards to worker welfare and an insistence on worker overtime.
The Sumangali system in India represents one particularly disturbing example of female worker exploitation. Sumangali recruiters target girls from poor families, offering them binding 3-5 year contracts working on spinning mills. During this time, young girls move into a company-controlled compound and are prevented from seeing their families. The compound also is designed to restrict contact between the girls for fear they might form unions. These girls are expected to work 12 hour shifts at the mills, although this often extends into overtime, for a pay of 34 rupees (37 pence) a day. At the end of the contract, they are offered a lump sum as a dowry, and are driven into forced marriages. If this is one of the systems that produce Fast Fashion, then it's clear that Feminist Fast Fashion can never be a reality.
Not What it Seams
The reality of these women's lives is all but invisible when browsing racks of beautifully stitched clothes in London. But beneath the surface, their tragic stories are woven into the very fabric of some of today’s biggest fashion retailers. The bottom line is that Fast Fashion is not what it seems and the seams that encase our brand new t-shirts are already dirty.
Some Fast Fashion companies are notorious for advertising their commitment to female empowerment. Pretty Little Thing claims to "fly the flag for sisterhood" with their "#EveryBODYinPLT" campaign. They sell t-shirts with phrases like "Girl, You Got This" printed on them and donate profits to the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. Similarly, Boohoo's "#AllGirls" campaign claims to have been " built on a collective of women that represent female empowerment." The problem with the rhetoric of "all girls" and "everybody" is that they exclude the women and girls involved in their murky supply chains. These Fast Fashion companies have repeatedly been criticised for a lack of transparency and for selling garments so cheap that they cannot have been ethically made. These female empowerment campaigns are, at their core, hypocritical. They are proof that Feminist Fast Fashion does not exist.
Parliament’s newest EAC report, “FixingFashion,” argues that the power of fast fashion is in the fact that “at no other time in human history has fashion been so accessible to so many people across our society” (EAC 2019, 7). But, at what price? We cannot trade clothing accessibility for human rights violations. Despite the power of Fast Fashion to grant access to women in “our society,” Feminism demands we respect the rights of all women in all societies. Fast Fashion is a step back, not a step forward for women on an international scale.
where do we go from here? Although Feminist Fast Fashion does not and cannot exist, genuine Feminist Fashion is a thriving sector. Many fashion brands are directly built on a platform of empowering marginalised women. International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to explore a few.
Paola Masperi is the founder of Mayamiko, a company that nurtures the local talents of seamstresses in Malawi. Many Mayamiko items were produced in Paola’s “Fashion Lab,” which also functions as a community centre and daycare for its workers. This ensures that women who need childcare still have the opportunity to support themselves. The Mayamiko Trust provides local training and education initiatives. Mayamiko is a collaboration between Feminism and fashion at its finest.
Rebecca Fordham, former United Nations and UNICEF before starting her fashion company. Tales of Thread was created with the goal of enabling market access for creatives and designers in Accra, Ghana. Like Mayamiko, it is similarly committed to empowering women in the workforce. Rebecca aims to work with production factories that are owned and operated by women, and her workforce is currently 85% female.
SeeMe founder, Caterina Occhio is also an undeniable Feminist force. Her jewellery business seeks out women, often single mothers, who have been victims of violence in Tunisia. She trains them in the art of jewellery making and pays them a fair wage. This jewellery is beautiful, both in its original design and in its meaningful journey through production.
International Women’s Day is the perfect moment to reevaluate the stories behind our purchases. It is a moment to consider the contradiction of "Feminist Fast Fashion." And it’s a moment to celebrate the amazing women who have founded fashion brands genuinely dedicated to female empowerment.