When fashion becomes a feminist issue

For those of us trying to get a grasp on what ‘sustainable fashion’ actually is, the landscape a minefield. Too often it seems we have to pick and choose our values along the way: ethically made or organic; Feminist or Fair Trade; recycled fabrics or contemporary design.

Fashion the second most polluting industry in the world - second only to oil.  Its workers are over 80% female. From a feminist perspective, how can one advocate women’s rights while simultaneously supporting an industry that is so exploitative of women? How can a garment be Fair Trade if the cotton used is made with poisonous pesticides that cause death and sickness for its farmers? Why should we support an economic system that supports billion dollar annual profits for multi - national corporations while its employees work in horrendous conditions for little or no pay?

The environmental impact of garment production has radical gender and class-specific implications for the communities and ecological systems it affects. This article discusses how even if the assembly of a garment itself doesn’t involve unfair labour, if its production process negatively affects the environment it is women who will directly bear the cost.

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Something called the feminisation of labour

Clothing is one of the few production processes left that still necessitates human labour. Yet we, as consumers, seldom consider the fact that everything we wear has been made by another human being; most likely a woman. Having traditionally done unpaid labour such as housework, child-rearing, water/fuel gathering etc, women are a more obvious choice for factory work and low-paid labour due to their perceived (socially and culturally produced) ‘subservient’ nature. The result of this perception is that the overwhelming majority of manufacturing industry workers are women. Social scientist Professor Mary Mellor describes female labour as the “ultimate cash crop” for patriarchal capitalist industries such as prostitution, sex tourism and sweatshops. Sexism is often only reinforced by a society’s shift to capitalism, with male factory owners often harnessing the labour of their wives, daughters and female neighbours in order to compete in the pressures of the garment industry.

Overwhelmingly in garment factories, men hold managerial or supervising roles while women work at menial, monotonous tasks. This is due to women’s perceived more docile nature, willingness to take orders, acceptance of lower wages and their unwillingness to complain or unionise due to the frequent threat of sexual harassment. In what is often now referred to as the ‘feminisation of labour’, female workers are often persuaded that certain work is beyond their capabilities; this work is then given to men who are paid significantly more because the work is supposedly ‘harder’ .

Insert environmental statistics here >>>

The textile industry has been found to be the second biggest polluter of water after agriculture with 25% of chemicals produced worldwide being used in this industry.

One of the world’s biggest natural disasters in recent times has been the total drainage of the Aral Sea since the 1960s. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, its disappearance was directly caused by the redirection of its water into Uzbekistan’s 1.47 million hectares of cotton farmland . In 1984 in Bhopal, India, a chemical leak at a factory producing pesticides for cotton farming killed over 8,000 people in 72 hours and has killed over 25,000 people since. Not to mention the production of Nylon fabric creating nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 296 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This teamed with 40,000-50,000 tons of dye being released into freshwater bodies every year which then infiltrates soil, drinking water and crops creates a level of environmental destruction greater than any other industry, with the exception of oil.

Sorry, but what has this got to do with gender? 

BREAKING NEWS >>>> environmental issues disproportionately affect women

The people most affected by climate change and ecological decline are not the wealthy consumers of fashion but often the world’s poorest, most vulnerable societies. The most vulnerable members of these societies are women. As well as gender-based violence, trafficking and laws that prohibit their access to land and property, women are the worst affected by environmental issues.

Due to the gendered division of labour, the effects of deforestation and desertification are first felt by women, who must walk further for water, fuel and food as well as caring for her family. Female life expectancy is systematically “more adversely affected by natural disasters than that of men”: this is due almost entirely to pre-existing socioeconomic inequalities being exacerbated in time of crisis. In times of drought and limited food resources, women give priority to men and children and they and their female children are often the last to eat. Women in rural developing countries have no access to local government and public forums and thus little agency in influencing and advocating for policy changes, programmes and local initiatives that support their needs and priorities.


The flipside of all this negativity is that fashion has huge potential to initiate change. The real issue at hand, of course, is the consumerist nature of society today and our constant desire for new things. To solve this issue in the long run we must radically change our behaviour as a society. But in the meantime it’s worth asking: how can we improve HOW we consume whilst we delay the ultimate need to stop consuming?

CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) policies listed on the ‘About’ section of a brand’s website represents a public relations commitment rather than a genuine policy, and allows companies to pander to public pressure on their brand’s ethics whilst skirting any actual responsibility. It is crucial for consumers to recognise this ‘box ticking’ approach and instead support social and environmental policies that are rooted in a company’s fundamental principles and considered at each stage of the garment production process. Dead giveaway: vagueness and zero facts means even THEY don’t know what they’re talking about.

Global solidarity with bottom-up initiatives (beginning with the workers themselves) in tackling gender and environmental issues is crucial. Garment workers all over the world are unionising and protesting against poverty wages and exploitation. This ‘trickle-up’ effect is working: through their protests in the last ten years, despite being met with some of the most violent police and management responses in recent history, Cambodia’s garment workers have managed to almost double their minimum wage in the past two years.

On a personal level, we must recognise the relationship we, as female consumers, inevitably have with female garment workers through our clothes, and that sexism is only exacerbated where women are most vulnerable.

Left up on a mannequin in the shop window of Paper Dress Boutique, Curtain Road, Shoreditch London during Fashion Week. Photo by Robin Prime

Left up on a mannequin in the shop window of Paper Dress Boutique, Curtain Road, Shoreditch London during Fashion Week. Photo by Robin Prime

Get involved by demanding change

Craftivism is a collective that uses craft as “a tool for gentle activism aimed at influencing long-term change.” Sounds vague, but their style of campaigning so far has moved Marks & Spencers significantly towards implementing a living wage, to name one success. Read their blog, make a mini activist banner, host an event or even embroider post-its.

Get involved in the campaigns of Labour Behind the Label and War on Want, go on a petition-signing spree, read up on the world, maybe even send a letter…

Turn your t-shirt inside out and demand to know #whomademyclothes at fashionrevolution.org where you can find upcoming events and the holy grail of Futher Reading….And finally check out the crazy process involved in making your favourite pair of jeans and who makes them by watching this video.

Activism & shopping: and now the twain shall meet

Birdsong is the ultimate feminist brand. No sweatshops, no photoshop, made by women’s organisations in London with 50-85% of each purchase going straight back to the women to made it, from groups in Malawi to grannies in Kingston and migrant mothers in East London.

And also, in no particular order *deep breath* People Tree for leggings, Patagonia for puff-balls, thermals, fleecys, and everything primary coloured or outdoors, Irish lads Grown for the hippest biodegreable tee shirts you will ever find, Mud Jeans for trying out and borrowing jeans until you find the perfect pair, Asos Eco Edit for laziness and those who can’t stray too far from familiar territory, Well Made Clothes for swimwear, underwear everything else and a brilliant blog to boot, Ecosphere for accessories and improving your Swedish, Christy Dawn for your inner hyper-feminine woman, Reformation for silky, sustainable sex appeal...

And remember...if you can’t buy well, buy nothing! Or come to a Nu. swap-shop on the third Saturday of every month in Wigwam, Abbey Street @ 1pm and swap your unloved stuff for nicer better clothes to your heart’s content.


Lucy BowenComment