The ethics of fashion: How fast fashion brands perpetuate performative feminism

This past Monday, March 8th, was International Women’s Day, an event aimed at uplifting and empowering women and bringing attention to women’s rights issues. International Women’s Day has been honoured since the early 1900s, originating from the trade union movement in America, mainly centred among women’s activists working in the clothing industry in what became known as sweatshops. These women continuously protested against the dangerous working conditions and long working hours they were forced to endure. 

Still, over one hundred years on and these sweatshops and poor working conditions are unfortunately far from a distant memory. A vast increase in fast fashion in recent years has seen a greater demand than ever before for new garments in order to keep up with the latest trends, and an even greater workforce needed to meet this demand. Fast fashion brands like Pretty Little Thing – owned by fashion giant Boohoo – are expressly known for their ludicrously low prices; amid the mayhem of online Black Friday sales last year, the brand came under fire on Twitter for selling dresses for as low as 8p and advertising their “99% off” reductions. 

In the last number of years, fast fashion retailers have dominated the market, selling thousands upon thousands of various styles of every type of dress, t-shirt and jumper imaginable, coupled with a seemingly constant stream of site-wide sales and discount codes. This is all only possible through the horrific conditions these companies subject their workers to.

Approximately 80% of garment workers worldwide are women, and with the Asia-Pacific region employing an estimated 65 million garment sector workers in 2019, this region accounts for 75% of all garment workers worldwide. In Bangladesh, the textile industry accounts for 80% of the country’s exports, with the average monthly wage of a textile worker sitting at a meagre $64 USD. 

Garment workers in Bangladesh have been subjected to horrific working conditions at the hands of fast fashion companies for years and in April 2013, the dark side of the garment industry was brought to the attention of the mainstream media when the Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial garment factory in Bangladesh, collapsed, leaving 1,134 workers dead and 2,500 injured, most of whom were young women and children. The previous day, building owners had ignored warnings of detrimental cracks in the building and instructed its employees to come to work as normal. 

The incident shone a glaring spotlight on these massive corporations and their blatant lack of regard for workers in countries like Bangladesh or Vietnam, where employees work long days with little to no ventilation, breathing in toxic substances. With seven-day workweeks commonplace during peak periods, factory managers are also known to regularly pressure employees to work 16 to 18-hour workdays as order deadlines approach. 

Workers in factories that serve the likes of Gap and H&M have also reported being beaten as punishment for not meeting – wholly unrealistic – production quotas, as well as being verbally abused or threatened with contract termination. Research by the Global Fund for Women found that in Bangladesh, over 60% of female garment workers had been intimidated or threatened at work, with this same study finding that 34% of garment workers in Vietnam had experienced physical harassment at work, including kissing, touching or hitting. 

Furthermore, through gathering BMI figures from workers in garment factories, UK-based not-for-profit organisation Labour Behind the Label found that 33% of garment workers in Cambodia are underweight, with 25% displaying figures that would be used to diagnose anorexia in the UK, with most involuntarily undereating despite the strenuous and physically exhausting conditions they are forced to endure.

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Garment factory in West Java, Indonesia – photo by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash

And these miserable conditions are observed globally; last year, amid the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, an undercover reporter for the Sunday Times in the UK found that staff at Boohoo factories in Leicester were being paid as little as £3.50 an hour in the factory, despite the minimum wage in Britain for those aged 25 and over being £8.72, while it was also found that staff were not wearing protective masks.

In June of last year, Labour Behind the Label also conducted a report on Boohoo’s Leicester factory conditions during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, finding that workers were being asked to work with “little or no” social distancing and no provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) or sanitising stations, as well as some workers who tested positive for COVID-19 reporting that they were told to continue working. It was during this time that Leicester had been the site of a localised coronavirus outbreak, with these cramped conditions and lax safety measures thought to have played a role in the surge in cases in the area. 

Complaints of verbal and physical abuse, a severe lack of safety measures in place and the relentless underpayment and exploitation of its majority female workforce, and yet, fast fashion brands take to the main stage on International Women’s Day, advocating for “equality for all” and “women’s empowerment”. These very companies who exploit millions of women utterly epitomise what it means to be a performative ally as these very brands which deem themselves as “progressive” blatantly terrorise their workers behind the scenes. 

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Hundreds of tons of clothing in an abandoned factory in Cambodia – photo by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash

The fact of the matter is, fast fashion brands capitalise heavily on feminist-centred events like International Women’s Day, using them as an opportunity to proclaim to all their consumers what it means to be a “girl boss”; apparently, it’s stocking slogan tees embellished with the words “Boss Babe” or “Feminist Queen” and calling it a day. On Monday, Pretty Little Thing announced through their Instagram a new line of t-shirts with various slogans like “girls empowering girls”, with 100% of the proceeds going to GirlsInc. 

The irony certainly wasn’t lost on many of the brand’s followers, who took to the comment section to critique the move – “How about supporting the girls and women who make your clothes?” wrote one user. For overexploited workers to be forced to make t-shirts emblazoning the need for women to support women while they work 16-hour days and suffer physical and verbal harassment to meet deadlines is outrageous in itself, but for Pretty Little Thing to be publicised as the “good guys” donating to charity is even more disconcerting. 

Fast fashion is unquestionably a feminist issue, with the industry directly contributing to the disempowerment of millions of women every year. With the Clean Clothes Campaign in 2019 finding that zero garment workers within Asia, Africa, Central America or eastern Europe were paid enough to live with dignity, it’s time for the performative allyship to end – H&M, Missguided, Boohoo, the list goes on, do not stand with women, instead choosing to exploit women worldwide to increase their own profit margins. 

For companies who thrive off slave labour to simultaneously glorify International Women’s Day is an outright insult to women everywhere. When these brands begin to implement fair working conditions and a liveable wage, maybe then we can start to believe that they actually care about women over profit; until that happens, this “feminism” and “allyship” is nothing more than a publicity stunt, and a cruel, deplorable one at that.

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Rachel McLoughlin

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