Remember the controversy that went down with Cara Delevingne and that ‘future is female’ sweatshirt a few months ago? Essentially, the model had decided to create her own line of apparel emblazoned with the female-positive slogan and was subsequently accused of ripping off LA-based studio Otherwild. The point is, though, that this kind of story is not an isolated incident. Slogan t-shirts bearing a similar sentiment have now cropped up all over the Internet. Nasty Gal offers a range of feminist slogan t-shirts, for example, proclaiming things like ‘History is Herstory’, ‘Screw Sexists’ and ‘Support Your Local Girl Gang’. But as the original idea becomes increasingly replicated on the high street, the meaning itself also gets watered down. Especially in the context of fast fashion’s dubious manufacturing processes, the original feminism behind ‘the future is female’ message feels progressively negated. This demands the question: who is responsible for creating cheap garments, what were they paid to do so and were their working conditions what we would consider to be fair? According to the International Growth Centre, “women represent the backbone of the textile industry’s workforce”. So is the future really female for them?
Unfortunately, working conditions for garment factory workers worldwide are sub-par overall. This is despite certain regulatory standards and government legislation that aims to tackle human rights. According to Fashion Revolution’s 2015 White Paper, “systematic exploitation remains rife.” The human rights violations run the gamut of forced and child labour, repression and discrimination, and unsafe, dirty and unfair working conditions. “Producers and garment workers might face excessive hours, forced overtime, lack of job security, denial of trade union rights, poor health, exhaustion, sexual harassment, discrimination and denial of other basic human rights when on the job.” You might think that these issues are isolated to developing nations like Bangladesh, but in fact the same issues can also occur in developed countries like the United Kingdom or the United States.
Speaking to ethical fashion advocate and the founder of Clean Cut Fashion, Kelly Elkin, it becomes clear that the explosion of fast fashion has only really exacerbated these problems. “The amount that we’re now producing and the pressure factories are under means that there’s an increase in the urgency to get things done,” she explains. “So there’s forced overtime, there’s bartering down of payments (which factory can offer the better price) and the unskilled workers are predominantly women, so they’re the ones that get exploited, because they’re at the bottom of the supply chain.” In Bangladesh alone, she says there are 3.8 million people working in the garment industry and 85% of them are women. “The statistics are drastic when you’re talking about the amount women get harassed compared to men. There’s a lot of sexual harassment, but there’s a lot of mental abuse as well. Because the superiors tend to be males and often they don’t understand women’s issues. Even things like having adequate amounts of toilets available at particular times of the month, for example. Simple, basic needs that women in countries like Australia don’t even think about.”
When you think about it in this way, clothing that may at first appear to be sending a positive message — with an upbeat slogan for example — could actually carry a very high social cost. Given the sheer size and magnitude of the fashion industry, this is not something that will change overnight. But, according to Elkin, what we really need to work towards is awareness and education. “I’d like to think that nobody is really evil, it’s just that they’re ignorant,” she says. “But we know that women deserve the same rights as men; they deserve training and upskilling just as much as any man. It’s about human worth and, unfortunately, throughout history women have traditionally been seen as a burden in some cultures. That ‘worthlessness’ is what we really need to stamp out.”
Of course, the garment industry has offered some benefits for women historically. Since the 1980s, the ready made garment (RMG) industry in places like Bangladesh, for example, has provided jobs for women outside of the household that weren’t previously available. According to the International Growth Centre, the development of “RMG was the first industry to provide large-scale employment opportunities to women in Bangladesh, in a country where women traditionally did not work outside their home.” In 2014 research conducted by Professor Rachel Heath and Professor Mushfiq Mobarak, it was shown that there were significant gender empowerment and income opportunity benefits for women in having access to factory jobs. But that really points to the benefits of having jobs at all, because previously these women were bound to work in the household. And unfortunately, as the IGC points out, “empowerment often stops when it comes to the equality of opportunities within RMG factories in Bangladesh. From data collected within factories, 4 out of every 5 production line workers are female, whilst just over 1 in 20 supervisors is a woman.” So the goal, then, needs to be improving the workplace for women in the garment industry, rather than removing job opportunities for them altogether. With this in mind, what we need to focus on is greater equality within the individual factories themselves. This is something that must first start with education, but also a shift in consumer attitudes on a more personal level.
As Kelly Elkin points out, most consumers wouldn’t want to contribute to the exploitation of women and, in the same way, “most brands would not want to have their garments made in unfair circumstances. But unfortunately they’re so busy trying to figure out how to keep their businesses afloat, that the woman sewing a particular seam over and over again is not immediately in their mind.” She says that the way we can combat this as individuals is to ask a lot of questions. “Individual consumers can simply question their favourite brands,” she explains. “Ask them if there are any gender equality and human rights agreements in place within the workplace. Also, just letting your peers know that you don’t feel comfortable wearing something that may have involved a woman being exploited can make a difference.” It might seem like a slogan tee is a great way to exercise your own personal politics — and it totally can be. But just be sure to first research where that t-shirt was made and whether the particular brand behind it has any supply chain transparency in place. By asking the questions, we can all become more ethical shoppers and hopefully contribute to positive change for women working in the garment industry. It’s great to see that feminism has become more mainstream over recent years and has trickled into our fashion trends as well, but it needs to be about equality for all women, including those making our clothes for us.
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