Why Fashion Needs Feminism In More Forms Than A Slogan Sweater

by: Rosie Dalton | 5 years ago | Features

Image: Gender Equality is one of our 8 Well Made Clothes Values.

Feminism is nothing new, with many of our politicians, activists and celebrities campaigning for equal rights regardless of gender. So why, then, does gender-based inequality remain such a major problem throughout the garment industry today? A lot of this has to do with the fact that fashion’s fabulousness can tend to obscure the reality behind it. Even though most of us would be horrified to learn that an overwhelming 70% of female workers at factories in Guangzhou, China have experienced work-related sexually harassment.

This isn’t just an issue in China, either, but throughout most of the global garment industry — a sphere that still remains predominantly female. According to War on Want’s Stitched Up, women workers account for 85% of the total garment industry workforce in Bangladesh. And that’s an industry responsible for employing more than three million people. A report conducted by Better Work points out that “sexual harassment remains high in factories because it is often large numbers of women, young, inexperienced and in some cases, illiterate, being supervised by a small number of men.” The problem, of course, is also that violence against women can take on many different forms.

Discrimination against women in the garment industry can range from unequal opportunities and wages, to unpaid overtime, inadequate facilities and even physical or sexual violence. Despite the fact that approximately three quarters of the garment industry is female, women are paid significantly less than men right across the globe. So, in countries like Bangladesh, women earn far less than their male counterparts and have little or no access to further opportunities. The jobs with greater responsibility and, therefore, higher wages simply aren’t available to them for the most part. As Stitched Up has shown, a disproportionate amount of “women workers are at the bottom of the supply chain working long hours for poverty wages and denied basic maternity rights.”

All of this is not even taking into consideration the fact that so many women workers in the garment industry give back most of what they earn to their families and community. According to Arancha Gonzalez, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre (ITC), women “reinvest about 90 percent of their revenues back to their community, compared to 40 percent for men”. Which, in the context of the global garment industry, means the majority of women are forced to work overtime in order to meet basic needs like housing or rising food costs. When War on Want interviewed female garment industry workers in Bangladesh, for example, they found that 32% of the women interviewed work a massive 100-140 hours of overtime every month just in order to make ends meet.

Clearly, radical change is needed in order for a fair and equal clothing industry to finally become a reality. For that, our feminist ideals must extend to where they are needed most: our wardrobes. It is reductive to assume that feminism is beyond fashion simply because it’s an industry that trades in appearances. As the data very clearly shows, the issues at play here are far more nuanced — and more concealed —than they first appear. So it is not enough to emblazon our t-shirts and sweaters with positive feminist statements. When St Vincent wears ‘The Future is Female’ across her chest, for example, the sentiment is right — but we all need to introduce the actions to match.

One of the most important things to remember when it comes to gender equality in fashion is that the garment industry provides many much-needed jobs for women. So the focus needs to be on improving their working conditions, rather than removing their access to employment. As Social Europe points out, “empowerment often stops when it comes to the equality of opportunities within RMG [Ready Made Garment] 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, is to address these imbalances from within. And, with this in mind, we need to support those businesses prepared to work collaboratively with their producers and suppliers in order to ensure gender equality across all levels.

At Well Made Clothes, we believe in equal rights for all people, regardless of gender. And the brands beneath our Gender Equality value are also passionate about making this a garment industry reality. These brands choose to work with producers and vendors that respect equal rights for all people. And to earn this value, a minimum of their cut, make and trim production must comply with equal employment rights and anti-discrimination laws. Many of them also provide up skilling, training and family support for mothers, as well as safe working places and fair work for women from remote villages. But the brands cannot do it alone.

It is vital that we all work collectively towards the goal of gender equality in the garment industry. Because fair and equal pay will ultimately allow women to regain their independence — especially in countries where arranged marriages tend to trap young women in abusive or otherwise desperate situations. Gender equality is important in all walks of life, not just those that may be visible to the naked eye. So just because we can’t see the injustices enacted upon women working in the garment industry, doesn’t mean there isn’t a dire need for change. By ensuring that our consumer decisions reflect our feminist ideals on all levels, then together we can change lives for the better.

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