So, I guess we're all aware of the bad rep that 'fast fashion' has these days… 'Sustainable' and 'ethical' have instead become the buzz words that are thrown around by brands, influencers and the fashion industry alike. But why is 'fast fashion' a feminist issue and how can we, as conscious consumers, make these 'ethical' and 'sustainable' choices when it comes to what we wear?
Well for starters, fast fashion disproportionately disempowers women. Fast fashion clothing is made in garment factories across South Asia and India, where millions of women work in hostile and oftentimes dangerous working conditions. According to the non-profit, Remake 80% of the people making our clothing are young women, aged 18-24, most of whom earn less than $3 a day. Fast fashion is literally trapping a generation of young women into poverty – to put it into perspective, it would take a garment worker 18 months to earn what a fashion brand CEO makes on their lunchbreak. Garment workers often enter the industry as young as 14, working long hours - an average of 14 hrs per day in sweatshops, for low wages, whilst also dealing with the constant threat of sexual harassment and exploitation.
So, why are women the most heavily exploited within the textile industry and how does it connect to 'fast fashion'?
Neo-liberalism "favours a global free market, without government regulation, with businesses and industry controlled and run for profit by private owners." The rise of neo-liberalism in the 1970s meant that textile companies faced ever-growing competition and sought to reduce their cost of production through cheap labour. Workers who could be easily exploited were sought out - women in countries like India, China and Bangladesh where the lack of labour laws and trade unions allowed these companies to enforce labour conditions characterised by low income and deregulation.
The rise in free-market capitalism relied on the perpetuation of 'growth', ultimately creating a culture of commodification and consumerism, where everything has a price and nothing has a value. The fast-fashion model began to mimic this rampant culture of materialism, relying on overproduction, overconsumption and waste, whereby women, already at a social disadvantage, became the most vulnerable. This process, many feminists argue, is the foundation of capitalist-patriarchy, where the intersection of gender inequality and capitalism can be fully realised.
Patriarchy is defined as a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property. Capitalism is defined as an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. It has created a society of consumers whereby the masculinist mentality of corporate growth and greed that's led to over-consumption and disposability at large, is the same mentality that exploits women through a social order based on the sexual division of labour and the undervaluing of women's work, to fulfil and propagate the industry's machine. This intersection of capitalism and patriarchy reinforces the other at the disadvantage of women.
The term 'fast fashion' was coined by the New York Times in the 1980s to define Zara's 15-day turnaround rate upon the store's arrival in the U.S. Since then the fashion industry machine has continued accelerating along a path of excess as consumers have become more and more detached from the origins of their clothing and the environmental consequences of a system functioning with such high turnover cycles. Rana Plaza was a shocking wake-up call for the fashion industry, as it shined a blatant spotlight onto the unethical and dangerous third world labour practices that subjugated the most vulnerable in society, women. Since then, many clothing labels have sought to clean up their supply chain and empower textile industry workers, however until the consumer demand for 'fast fashion' dissipates, labels will continue to partake in its exploitative practices.
Ultimately, fashion has the revolutionary potential to empower women. Sustainable and ethical fashion is about fostering a fashion industry that takes a long-term approach to the design, manufacturing, and consumption of clothes and accessories. It's about fashion that creates good and avoids harm, whether to people, the planet, or animals. As consumers, WE have the power to influence production demands and how we want the fashion industry to operate in years to come. This can begin by simply refusing to buy brands known to exploit third world labour, for example by failing to pay a living wage. Consumer resources like the Good On You app rate thousands of brands on their labour practices and manufacturing transparency so that shoppers can make more informed decisions once they know who has made their clothes. The growing interest in rental and second-hand clothing (a market that is expected to grow nearly 1.5 times the size of fast fashion by 2028, as cited in ThredUp's 2019 Resale ReportthredUP's Resale Report) is another way of promoting sustainable practices when it comes to our fashion choices.
However, acknowledging the important role that 'fast fashion' has played for many women, particularly women of colour is also an important part of this conversation. Before fast fashion, "professional" workwear was mainly reserved for the more elite who could afford the necessary fabrics and seamstresses to make their clothing. Fashion historian and CEO of Tribute, Joelle Firzli points out that "the rapid growth that defines fast fashion brands goes hand-in-hand with the increase of women's participation in the labour force" as women could dress professionally without spending a lot of money.
Dominique Drakeford, social sustainability influencer and co-founder of Sustainable Brooklyn speaks about the nuances in culturally economic race relations. "Fast fashion consumption eased the racist blow of identity politics" as it became an "accessible way for economically triggered communities to invest in modern clothing for entry into the workforce". Although fast-fashion is founded upon the abuse of communities with disposable incomes, particularly women in the Global South, it has also played its part in helping women enter the workforce. So, our path towards greater awareness around sustainable and ethical fashion practices must involve the acknowledgement of one's privilege and ultimately must include a diversity of voices and brands.
Seeking out brands FOR and BY women:
Most importantly, if we are to become conscious consumers, we must actively support brands by women who are empowering their female workers. Below are just a few who are leading the way when it comes to feminist fashion made ethically and sustainably:
- Outland Denim: This Australian brand was founded as an avenue for the training and employment of women who have experienced sex trafficking.
- Proclaim: an inclusive nude lingerie line made in Los Angeles from recycled plastic water bottles, owned by Shobha, whose parents immigrated to the USA from India in the 1970s
- Label By Three: Founded by three women of colour, this US brand is based on their beliefs in slow fashion, inclusivity, and the action that makes a brand truly ethical. All their clothes are made from deadstock fabrics, locally made materials and are vegan-friendly.
- Afends: an Australian-based fashion brand leading the way in organic hemp fashion, using renewable energy in its supply chain to reduce its climate impact. Full range in sizes XS-XL.
- lemlem: an artisan-driven brand made entirely and responsibly in Africa, with a core mission of preserving the local art of weaving in Ethiopia and inspiring economic growth on the continent. Meaning to bloom and flourish in the Ethiopian language of Amharic, lemlem is a label of love, celebrating women and nature.
- Brother Vellies: founded in 2013 with the goal of keeping traditional African design practices, and techniques alive while also creating and sustaining artisanal jobs. These gorgeous shoes and handbags are handcrafted in South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Morocco. Founder Aurora James started the @15percentpledge, asking major North American retailers to dedicate 15% of their shield space to black-owned brands.
- We Are We Wear: London-based swimwear label that champions body diversity and sustainability made from unwanted waste materials such as fishing nets and industrial plastics
- Ngali: An Aboriginal Australian brand founded by a Wiradjuri woman that operates through the lens of Yindayamarra – fashion that shows respect, is polite, considered, gentle to Country and shows honour to the cross country collaborations with other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creatives. Every purchase helps a young person in a remote indigenous community improve their IT skills
- Funky Kalakar: founded on the pillars of circularity, veganism, transparency, and empowerment. Its bags and shoes are made by artisans in India, blending modern design with ancient craft
- Kitx: Founded by Kit Willow who works with artisans in India, to create ethical, sustainable clothing for women.
Written by Nikki Thorburn
Nikki is a writer and musician, who when she's not on stage, can be found tucked away in her bedroom writing about all things sustainability, social justice and feminism. She's written for publications including RUSSH, Rolling Stone, Bustle, Frankie and Elle Magazine and one day wants to become a pilot and circumnavigate the globe solo - just like Amelia Earhart.