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Why fashion is a feminist issue

by | Aug 2, 2022

Fashion is political. The industry perpetuates deeply entrenched systems of exploitation that disproportionately affect women. Over 70% of the total fashion workforce is women, and yet, women hold less than 25% of leadership positions in top fashion companies. So, although fashion is considered to be a feminine industry, most fast fashion brand owners — who are often fashion billionaires — are men.

In honour of Women’s Month, let’s remind ourselves of how fashion affects women and why it is a feminist issue.

An industry upheld by women

While 70% of fashion’s total workforce is women, almost 80% of garment workers are women, according to Labour Behind the Label. Despite these figures, the fashion industry does next to nothing to advocate for the rights of the women whose labour upholds the industry.

Garment construction is considered a feminine profession as it is a ‘low-skill’ craft, which is used to justify the poverty wages. In fact, fashion CEOs earn, in just four days, the amount a garment worker makes in their lifetime, as reported by Quartz. The legal minimum wage, which even still is not abided by, does not provide workers the ability to pay for their everyday necessities such as food, electricity, and education. This means that many women have to find additional streams of revenue and, in certain cases, forcing children to work to help support the family. Besides low wages, garment workers endure long, arduous hours.

Many of these factories are located in Asia and Africa, where many workers are financially disadvantaged women of colour. Or, in the case of the Global North, they are often immigrants.

Working environments are often unsafe with dangerous machinery and exposure to toxins. For many big brands, garment workers’ safety is seldom a priority. Sexual harassment is also all too common in garment factories. And because of uneven power dynamics, many workers cannot report cases of sexual assault or risk losing their jobs, which they often depend on to support themselves and their families.

A feminist approach to fashion requires advocating for living wages, safe working conditions, healthcare, and a working environment without sexual harassment, gender pay gaps, and discrimination.

The climate crisis is a feminist issue

The fashion industry is one of the leading contributors to global warming, accounting for 8-10% of global carbon emissions, according to the BBC. With factory leaks, carbon emissions, and waste, the communities living near factories or disposal sites of these clothes are exposed to harmful pollutants.

Limited access to resources, lower wages, and unpaid childcare leave many women in extreme poverty, and thus, more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. “Gender inequality hampers women’s capacity and potential to be actors of climate action,” says intergovernmental specialist for the UN, Verona Collantes, to Global Citizen. “These gender inequalities — access to and control over resources, access to education and information, and equal rights and access to decision-making processes — define what women and men can and cannot do in a particular context of climate change,” she adds.

Apart from the fashion industry’s abuse of women across the supply chain, women working as models, in retail, and consumers of fashion brands are vulnerable to misogynist marketing campaigns, discrimination, and harassment.

What can we do?

We cannot address issues within fast fashion without acknowledging the disproportionate effects the industry has on women. To be a truly sustainable consumer of fashion, we need to ensure the protection and empowerment of women.

Here are a few ways that we can all advocate for, and take action towards, a fair and feminist fashion industry:

  • Support women-owned, ethical fashion businesses. To truly transform the industry, we need to advocate for women to be the ones leading the conversations and building brands that understand and value of the women who work in their supply chains.
  • Support small, local fashion businesses with ethical labour practices. Often smaller, local brands are more connected with their social context and have greater transparency when it comes to labour practices. It’s also often easier to ask these brands questions about their labour practices so that you can make an informed choice when investing in their clothing or recommending the brand to others.
  • Become a fashion activist. We all have the power to use our voices, platforms, and spheres of influence to hold fashion brands accountable. Fashion activism allows you to be a part of a larger collective movement for change. Signing a petition, emailing a brand, posting on social media with the #WhoMadeMyClothes, or becoming involved in an advocacy group are a few great ways to become a fashion activist.
  • Do your research. Facts and figures can often be dehumanising. Watching documentaries or films, speaking to factory workers and asking brands you support about their labour practices, are a few ways to get a clearer picture of the industry. Made in Bangladesh (2019) is a great film that captures the torment as well as the humanity of garment workers.
  • Support and follow the work of organisations and people making a change. There are some great organisations working towards a more just industry. Supporting and amplifying their work is a great way to advocate for real change. A few examples include: Fashion Revolution, Remake, Awaj Foundation, Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label, and Fair Wear Foundation.


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