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Deeds not words: How to be a feminist brand
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Deeds not words: How to be a feminist brand

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What do Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have in common? They were both pictured wearing a feminist tee at the centre of a sweatshop scandal.

With ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ emblazoned across their chests, the Lib Dem and Labour leaders featured in Elle Magazine as part of a 2014 campaign ran by women’s rights charity, Fawcett Society. But allegations soon surfaced that the t-shirts were made by female garment workers being paid just 62p an hour. Fawcett Society – who received the sale profits – denied all charges. 

5 years later, another ‘feminist’ tee made the headlines. Jessie J was among the many celebrities who promoted Comic Relief’s #IWantToBeASpiceGirl charity t-shirt. Shattering this girl power image, a Guardian investigation alleged that the tops were made in a Bangladeshi factory where women were verbally abused and earned as little as 35p an hour. The garment workers interviewed had never even heard of The Spice Girls. 

Sadly, these two scandals aren’t isolated events. Every International Women’s Day, fashion brands likely inundate your social media and inbox with feminist mantras and tote bags. Last year, for every £6 (!) ‘femme fierce’ tee sold, Boohoo donated £2 to the Wonder Foundation. Meanwhile, Missguided launched their #babewithsign campaign to ‘celebrate women and everything we stand for’. When fashion brands come out in faux-feminist force, they performatively capitalise on a movement they actively undermine. 

Behind every feminist slogan tee is a fashion industry that enslaves female garment workers in unsafe working conditions and poverty wages. The fashion industry employs approximately 60 million people directly, of which 80% are young women – only 2% of them earn a living wage. Many face physical, verbal or sexual abuse, with nearly 1 in 3 female garment workers surveyed reporting experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace in a single year. Fashion Revolution’s Garment Worker Diaries project also found that 60% of interviewees experienced gender-based discrimination. Over 15% reported being threatened while 5% had been hit. 

In these factories, the majority of managers and supervisors are men and the CEOS of H&M, Boohoo, Primark, ASOS, Urban Outfitters and Topshop are all – you guessed it – men (the last of which faces multiple allegations of sexually harassing and racially abusing staff). The pay gap is still rife – at Missguided there is a 46% median average pay gap in favour of men – while brands like Zara and Forever 21 are famed for stealing the designs of indie female designers. “We should all be feminists” slogan tees, then, seemingly don’t apply to the brands who sell them.

By tapping into their customers feminist beliefs, fashion brands convince us that communicating our values by what we wear is enough. Unless followed up with political action, feminist tees are nothing more than feel-good, self-indulgent purchases. And when manufactured in a sweatshop factory, their call for equal rights falls flat. Wearing your values looks like emailing companies about their supply chain, lobbying politicians for stricter regulations and boycotting brands that thrive off labour exploitation. 

That’s why Birdsong empowers it customers to dress in protest. Wearing our clothes takes an active stand against the systematic abuse of women in the production line – but our feminist messaging isn’t limited to our t-shirts. It’s found across our entire supply chain where women are paid fairly. It’s found on our social media where we educate our customers and amplify the voices of activists. Its found in our decision to temporarily pause production and prioritise the wellbeing of our makers in a global pandemic. And it’s found in our 2019 Impact Report which concluded that Birdsong is making a positive, tangible difference in our makers’ lives.

Birdsong began life as a feminist brand making slogan tees and we’re still hell-bent on paying women workers a fair wage. Last year we paid out £38,000 in wages to low income women, and the charities that support them. Behind every garment is an expert maker who faces barriers to employment in the UK. Our artists, printmakers, seamstresses and painters are all paid the London living wage to bring our creations to life and inspire new ones.

Our No Borders t-shirt, for example, pays homages to the incredible refugee and migrant women we work with every day, and the work of the no borders movement. And for every exercise empathy tee sold, £1.50 is donated to the Survivors’ Network, a Brighton-based charity supporting survivors of sexual violence and abuse. 

Feminism is so much more than a slogan tee. Feminism is about deeds, not just words.

Melissa Watt is a student and ethical fashion journalist. You can subscribe to her substack here.