Lara Bodger discusses why we should change the way we shop for clothes. For TWSS Issue #16 ‘Crossing the Border’.
Fashion has had a longstanding relationship with feminism, empowering women to choose how they will represent themselves to the outside world. I for one love the connection I feel between what I wear and my identity, and cheap high street clothes have allowed for easy access to fashion. But what effect is our thirst for bargains having on those that produce our clothes? The fast fashion industry has boomed in recent years, and in the last year alone, consumers spent £50 billion pounds. As 80% of garment workers are women, this is a gendered issue, and we need to be aware of the human cost of providing a demand for such cheap clothing. Identifying as a feminist is to hold a belief in the liberation of all women across the world, to quote Emma Lazarus “Until we are all free…none of us are free”.
You might remember the infamous 2008 Panorama documentary, ‘ Primark: On The Rack’, which showed horrifying footage of extremely exploitative conditions for labourers in Primark factories. The documentary has stayed with me, and I have since avoided shopping at Primark. But the hypocrisy in this is all too clear, as it’s not just Primark who are guilty. The reality being that access to cheap clothes from all high street brands means dire working conditions for all those producing the clothes. You only have to look at the label to see that the majority of high street clothing is produced in countries where employees have fewer or even nonexistent labour rights to protect them from extreme exploitation. Countries who produce these cheap garments are pitted against each other by high street fashion brands, to provide the lowest wages in order that these brands will then set up shop in their country. Labour behind the label, a Bristol-based cooperative who campaign for the rights of garment workers worldwide, draws attention to the human rights abuses within many factories. These include poverty wages, long hours, forced overtime, unsafe working conditions, alongside cases of sexual, physical and verbal abuse. The collapse of garment factories such as the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh, which killed 1,134 people in 2013, also demonstrates that the factories themselves can be shockingly dangerous due to a lack of enforcement of safety regulations.
There have been moves within the fashion industry to tackle this, with sustainable collections from brands such as H&M using eco-friendly fabrics, and making commitments to specific codes of conduct to ensure better working conditions for factory workers. Despite this, the issue here still lies with the outsourcing of work to independent suppliers, who are under no such obligation to comply with the codes and can continue to hire workers for extremely low wages. Another problem is that the rest of H&M’s products are not bound to these sustainable and ethical pledges, so whilst it’s great that they have made some effort in this area, the vast majority of their clothing is still being made in exploitative environments.
This is not to mention the environmental impact of fast fashion, with Stacey Dooley’s recent documentary ‘ Fashions Dirty Secrets ’ drawing attention to the fact that fashion is the second biggest polluter to oil. As a vegetarian attempting to navigate ethical food choices, it feels disingenuous to neglect the impact that my clothes are also having on the planet. It is also important to take into consideration that climate change affects those in the poorest regions first, and perhaps more notably that women in these regions are disproportionately affected by environmental crisis due to socio-economic factors.
It can feel overwhelming to tackle these issues, but there are things we can do it pressurise companies into change. A quick one is to sign up to campaigns and petitions that promote fair trade in the fashion industry. A longer-term commitment for those of us privileged to have the time and resources to consider our fashion choices is to be prepared to pay more in exchange for the knowledge that the workers are getting a fair wage. Ethical fashion brands such as ‘ People Tree’ do exist, and the more we support them, the more the industry will grow and protect workers. Also, check out the ‘Good On You’ app, which looks at the ethical credentials of brands so you can make informed decisions.
We also need to work on buying less, and not more! Many of us are guilty of treating clothes as disposable, buying something for single use, particularly since the rise of internet shopping and days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday which encourage us to continue the endless cycle of consumerism. I’m looking at you ASOS… Finally, vintage and charity shopping is another way to change spending habits, if you’re not quite ready to commit to a smaller wardrobe.
As feminists, or more generally as consciousness consumers, we need to do more to advocate for those who are trapped within an industry which denies them a voice and to make this discussion a public one in order to pressurise our favourite brands into doing a whole lot better!
Illustration by Rivka Cocker.