Fashion is a Feminist Issue
This International Women’s Day, we want to speak directly to the brands that are the problem. They cash in on the hype with feminist slogan t-shirts, but who’s really reaping the rewards?
Dear fast fashion brands,
How are you? We hope you’re well, despite our differences. Because we don’t hate you, we just want you to be better. Today, on International Women’s Day, we want to take the time to have a word with you about something we think is really important, and that you have the capacity to change. We just think you don’t want to change. And we don’t think that’s good enough any more. So we’re writing to you as politely as we can: please do better.
We see you cashing in on the hype of progressive marketing. We can’t lie, it’s a bit cliche - corporations have been dining out on cool credentials for a long time, using activism as an activation strategy, using every strategy in the book to bamboozle caring customers and working with talented creatives who actually know what’s going on. But don’t you want to actually do the good work? Isn’t it harder to make it look like you care? Isn’t actually caring easier and more straightforward? It must get tiring.
We think you know that times are changing. You know we can all see who’s at the top of your chain, and who’s being exploited at the bottom. You know that 80% of the richest people working in fashion are men. You know that 90% of the 40 million garment workers all over the world are women and girls. You know that their working conditions and their rights are a feminist issue. You’re hoping we won’t notice or connect the dots.
That must be why some of you are choosing to support empowering causes this International Women’s Day. We don’t want to be cynical, we’re not saying it’s a distraction. We hope you’re doing it sincerely. But even so, we’ve got to say: it isn’t quite enough. How genuinely transformative is it, especially when it’s not a long term thing? When profit margins for online retailers is typically 50-60%, 8%(ish) of your profit from a £15 product works out at 60p a garment. If you sell 5000 pieces, that’s £3,000 going to charity. Well, £3,000 before it gets filtered through overheads and admin costs. We get it, something is better than nothing. It’s better than that money just lining the pockets of the FTSE100 patriarchs. But is it really going to the women who need it most? And is there another way to do that?
The wages of garment workers still usually accounts for a measly 1-3% of a total garment price. We - well, you, fast fashion brands - need a different way of doing things. You need to start caring about garment workers; their wellbeing, their working conditions and what they take home in wages. The average garment worker in Bangladesh earns the spending power equivalent of just 69p an hour, for 60 hours a week. Many are forced to work overtime, in fear that their short term contracts won’t be extended. These coercive tactics mean 64% of the time, they don’t receive their legal minimum hourly wage. Many risk the sack just for getting pregnant, many are abused and harassed by male line managers (with little ability to speak out safely), many aren’t able to unionise or strike without putting their careers at risk.
We’re not telling you this so you feel bad, we’re telling you this so you can understand and put it right. Maybe sometimes it can be easy to think that any work is emancipatory for women - the girlboss myth is powerful and difficult to put aside. Is it so women can achieve economic independence, meaning in life, confidence and autonomy? Or are these women an exploitable force to provide cheap commodities. At the moment, on the wages you give them and under these conditions, it’s not the women making garments that are reaping the rewards this International Women’s Day.
You could pay them more for the work they do, ensuring those fair wages across your supply chain. You could hold factories in your supply chain to account when complaints are made, ensuring a safe environment for complaints to be raised. You could let garment workers unionise, because statistics show that a unionised workplace is a safer workplace. You could hold yourself accountable by making your process and supply chains more transparent, so customers can actually see where you’re improving. We know a different system is possible because we do it. Not to brag, but here at Birdsong, wages account for 15-50% of our pricetags. It’s a matter of principle, so we make it work.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember the radical history of International Women’s Day. The western tradition of IWD started out because of resistance from working class, Jewish shirtmakers in the garment district of New York City. The Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909 was inspired by the labour movements popping up either side of the century. Lead by Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian-American union organiser, and the newly formed International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, 15,000 women workers went on strike to fight for better pay, hours and working conditions. In the years that followed, the UN introduced the idea of an International Women’s Day to commemorate the hard won rights these workers had fought for. Feminism, fashion and workers’ rights have always been connected - it’s just up to us to make it the foundation of the work we do.
We hope you hear this, we hope you can change. Because we owe it to ourselves, the women that came before us, and the women that will come after us.
With all our love,